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4.2: What is morphology?

  • Page ID
    • Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi
    • eCampusOntario

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    In linguistics, morphology is the study of how words are put together. For example, the word cats is put together from two parts: cat, which refers to a particular type of furry four-legged animal (🐈), and -s, which indicates that there’s more than one such animal (🐈 🐈‍⬛ 🐈).

    Most words in English have only one or two pieces in them, but some technical words can have many more, like non-renewability, which has at least five (non-, re-, new, -abil, and -ity). In many languages, however, words are often made up of many parts, and a single word can express a meaning that would require a whole sentence in English.

    For example, in the Harvaqtuurmiutut variety of Inuktitut, the word iglujjualiulauqtuq has 5 pieces, and expresses a meaning that could be translated by the full English sentence “They (sg) made a big house.” (iglu = house, –jjua = big, –liu = make, –lauq = distant past, –tuq = declarative; this example is from a 2010 paper by Compton and Pittman).

    Not all combinations of pieces are possible, however. To go back to the simple example of cat and -s, in English we can’t put those two pieces in the opposite order and still get the same meeting—scat is a word in English, but it doesn’t mean “more than one cat”, and it doesn’t have the pieces cat and -s in it, instead it’s an entirely different word.

    One of the things we know when we know a language is how to create new words out of existing pieces, and how to understand new words that other people use as long as the new words are made of pieces we’ve encountered before. We also know what combinations of pieces are not possible. In this chapter we’ll learn about the different ways that human languages can build words, as well as about the structure that can be found inside words.

    What is a word?

    If morphology is the investigation of how words are put together, we first need a working definition of what a word is.

    For the purposes of linguistic investigation of grammar we can say that a word is the smallest separable unit in language.

    What this means is that a word is the smallest unit that can stand on its own in an utterance. For example, content words in English (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) can stand by themselves as one-word utterances when you’re answering a question:

    (1) a. What do you like to eat?
        Answer: cake (noun)
      b. What did you do last night?
        Answer: sleep (verb)
      c. What colour is the sky today?
        Answer: orange (adjective)
      d. How did you wake up this morning?
        Answer: slowly (adverb)

    Words are also syntactically independent, which means they can appear in different positions in a sentence, changing their order with respect to other elements even while the order of elements inside each word stays the same.

    In everyday life, in English we might think of a word as something that’s written with spaces on either side. This is an orthographic (or spelling-based) definition of what a word is. But just as writing isn’t necessarily a reliable guide to a language’s phonetics or phonology, it doesn’t always identify words in the sense that is relevant for linguistics. And not all languages are written with spaces in the way English is—not all languages have a standard written form at all. So we need a definition of “word” that doesn’t rely on writing.

    The definition of “word” is actually a hotly debated topic in linguistics! Linguists might distinguish phonological words (words for the purposes of sound patterns), morphological words (words for the purposes of morphology), and syntactic words (words for the purposes of sentence structure), and might sometimes disagree about the boundaries between some of these.

    Though words are the smallest separable units, that doesn’t mean that words are the smallest unit of language overall. As we already saw earlier in this section, words themselves can have smaller pieces inside them, as in the simple cases of cats (cats) or international (international)—but these smaller pieces can’t stand on their own.

    To refer to these smaller pieces within words, we use the technical term morpheme. A morpheme is the smallest systematic pairing of both form (sign or sound) and meaning or grammatical function. (We say “meaning or grammatical function” instead of just “meaning” because while some morphemes have clear meanings, of the type that will be discussed in Chapter 7 in the context of lexical semantics, other morphemes express more abstract grammatical information.)

    Words that contain more than one morpheme are morphologically complex. Words with only a single morpheme are morphologically simple.

    Ask yourself if the word “morphology” is morphologically complex. Can you identify morphemes within this word, systematic pairs of form and meaning? Historically, this word is built from two morphemes borrowed from Classical Greek: morph- “shape” and -ology “study of”. People who know English don’t necessarily know Classical Greek, though. Regardless of a word’s etymology (the history of a word), the question of whether it is morphologically complex is a question about how people who know that word use it today. A word might be morphologically complex for some people, but morphologically simple for others. Neither of those options is “correct” or “incorrect”, they just represent different grammars.

    In linguistics morphology is the study of word shapes. In biology, morphology is the study of the shape of animals and other organisms, and if you do an internet search for “morphology”, the first hits often relate to the biological meaning.

    Our goal in morphology is to understand how words can be built out of morphemes in a given language. In the this chapter we will first look at the shapes of different morphemes (and morphological processes); in later sections we will review different functions that morphology can have, looking at divisions between derivational morphology, inflectional morphology, and compounding.

    Check your understanding

    Query \(\PageIndex{1}\)


    Compton, Richard, and Christine Pittman. 2010. Word-formation by phase in Inuit. Lingua 120:2167–2192

    Morphological Definitions, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    I'm going to add a little bit more with respect to the morphological definitions that Catherine Anderson has posted above. This just gives a little more clarity when we're talking about what these definitions are, as we analyze morphology.


    In the previous section use the term morpheme. What is a morpheme? It is the smallest unit in a language that has meaning there's minimal matching of sound and meaning. That's a very fancy definition so let's break that down a little bit more. If I have the term preschool, it is a lexicon; it is a minimal free form. In this case, preschool has two different morphemes, two different puzzle pieces that combined to create that lexicon. There is the morpheme school, and that is the root, and there is the morpheme pre-, a prefix that is a type of affix. They combine their two puzzle pieces to building blocks to combine to make the lexicon preschool.


    You'll notice I keep saying lexicon; I’m not using the term 'word' and there's a good reason, as we saw in Chapter 1. ‘Lexicon’ is just a little bit more precise. We often use 'term' or 'terminology' as the same concept; 'lexicon' is used in linguistic circles. The term 'word' is not exactly precise enough, because in a given language, a word could have just a couple different morphemes put together and is an entire lexicon of a specific part of speech—it's all a noun or a verb or an adjective, etc. The problem is that in many languages, that is not the case that a word is frequently multiple pieces put together multiple parts of speech, all combined; we'll see examples of that later on. We use the term 'lexicon' to denote that this is a unit, a free-standing unit doesn't have to be combined with anything else; maybe it is, but it doesn't have to be it can stand alone. A lexicon can have only one single morpheme, or it can have multiple morphemes.


    Remember that arbitrariness is always going to be a factor, that we are combining morphemes in a certain way, and that is language specific. Why a given language combines morphemes in one way versus another, that's arbitrary. Most of you have experienced in learning a second language, whether it was English or another language and, in many cases they had very different rules as far as how to put lexicon together, how to put morphemes together, and how to put sentences together. All of those rules are arbitrary; those no real reason why North American English does one thing, but South Asian English does a different thing. There's no reason why English does one thing, but Japanese does a different thing, and Kikuyu does a third thing, and Cherokee does a fourth thing. It simply is the way the languages work; they're put together in different ways.


    One more term that I think will be very crucial, not just for morphology but as we go further, and especially in semantics and pragmatics when we get to Meaning, and that is a mental lexicon. I think of a mental lexicon as a type of mental dictionary, but it does so much more than a dictionary does. A dictionary tells you the definition, it might tell you the part of speech, it may give you the pronunciation, but it really doesn't give you much more. A mental lexicon gives you all of that, plus the slew of grammatical functions, a very large corpus of synonyms, antonyms, maybe relational memory and meaning. We'll come back to this when we get to Meaning and, specifically, having to refer to an ontology but more on that late. For now, as we go through morphology, just remember that these are mental lexicon are our storage units, or a box of knowledge with respect to a given language or even a given dialect. It includes all the possible entries of lexicon and the relationships.

    This page titled 4.2: What is morphology? is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Catherine Anderson, Bronwyn Bjorkman, Derek Denis, Julianne Doner, Margaret Grant, Nathan Sanders, and Ai Taniguchi (eCampusOntario) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.