What is Morphology?

Morphology explanation in Linguistics

Morphology is the study of the internal construction of words. Morphology is of two types; 1. Inflection and 2. Derivation. You will get in-depth knowledge about morphology, origin and types with examples.

Introduction of Morphology

The degree to which words can be broken down into word elements, or morphemes, varies greatly between languages. There are countless examples in English, such as “replacement,” which is made up of re-, “place,” and -ment, and “walked,” which is made up of the parts “walk” and -ed. Many American Indian languages have a complicated morphology, whereas Vietnamese and Chinese languages have very little or none. The grammatical processes of inflection and derivation are included in morphology. Person, tense, and case are all marked by inflection; for example, “sings” has a final -s, which indicates the 3rd person singular, while the German Mannes is made up of the stem Mann and the genitive singular inflection -es. Derivation is the formation of new words from existing words; e.g., “singer” from “sing” and “acceptable” from “accept.” Derived words can also be inflected: “singers” from “singer.” (Britannica)

Morphology is the study of the internal structure of words and forms an essential part of linguistic study

Origin of the Morphology

The word morphology comes from the Greek words morph-, which means “shape, form,” and -ology, which means “the study of anything.”

Morphology was initially named as a sub-discipline of linguistics in 1859 by German linguist August Schleicher, who used the term to examine the form of words.

 The Morphological Component

The basic unit ‘Phonemes’ are completely meaningless by themselves, yet they combine to form morphemes. The verb is also the basic and Important part of speech in English.

In a language, morphemes are the smallest units of meaning or grammatical function. Morphemes can be classified into two groups:

  1. Individual words, such as dog or bite, that can exist alone or in combination with other morphemes are known as free morphemes. Alternatively,
  2. Bound morphemes, such as –s in plays and re– in rewrite, must be attached to other words. Affixes refer to bound morphemes in general, or prefixes (dis– in disbelief) or suffixes (–sion in suspension), depending on how they attach to the word’s stem (or root).

Circumfixes affix around the stem in some languages, such as the German past participle morpheme ge–…–t, which when combined with the verb spielen (‘to play’) becomes gespielt (‘played’). In certain languages, infixes are used to introduce a morpheme into the stem. Meaning example, the term for write in Tagalog (a Philippine language) is /sulat/. The morpheme /um/ is infixed before the first vowel to get /sumulat/, which means ‘one who writes,’ while the morpheme /in/ is infixed to get /sinulat/, which means ‘that which is written.’ Affixes are attached to the stem, which can be a free morpheme (as in dare in daring) or a non-free morpheme (as in fer– in refer). In English, stems are very frequently free morphemes, but in some languages stems never stand on their own; they must have one or more bound morphemes attached.

The phonological environment in which some morphemes occur causes them to alter. Morphophonological rules are used to express these regularities. Indefinite articles (also known as determiners) in English are an example of such a rule. The definite article the is used to specify a noun (e.g., the book indicates a specific book), but the indefinite article an is less precise (e.g., the book specifies a specific book) (e.g., a cat refers to some cat, any cat). The indefinite article is pronounced differently depending on the phoneme after it: we say an apple and a cat.

Morphology Pictograph
Morphology Pictograph

Types of Morphemes

Bound morphemes further divided into two classes which perform very different functions: derivational morphemes and inflectional morphemes. These two classes of morphemes in terms of construction are, 1. Inflectional morphemes, 2. Derivational morphemes.

Inflectional Morphemes

Tense, number, gender, and case are all marked through inflectional morphemes. The meaning of the stem to which an inflectional morpheme is linked, as well as its grammatical category, remain unchanged (also known as part of speech, such as noun, verb, adverb, or adjective). The inflection simply adds grammatical elements such as tense, number, gender, and case to the stem. Race is a verb that refers to a specific type of locomotion; adding –ing to the verb does not affect its part of speech or meaning, but it does change its aspect to progressive: racing in It was racing down the street has a different grammatical function than raced in It raced down the street. Of course, there is another use of the bound morpheme –ing; it can change a verb to a noun, as in Racing can be lots of fun.

Because the morpheme –ed denotes past tense in English, the entire sentence in which a verb with –ed appears must denote past action. As a result, saying *The youngster walked tomorrow is grammatically incorrect, because the term tomorrow denotes future action. The tense of the past The last phoneme of the verb stem –ed is affixed to: morpheme has three alternative pronunciations, governed by a morphophonological rule: –ed is voiceless [t] if it is attached to a verb ending in a voiceless phoneme, such as walk; it is voiced [d] if it is attached to a verb ending in a voiced phoneme, such as buzz or show; and it is syllabic [d] if it is attached to a verb ending in a voiced phoneme, such as buzz or show; and it is syllabic [d] if the verb stem contains the letters /t/ or /d/, as in hate or pad. In English, the inflectional morpheme –ed has two purposes.

It denotes the simple past tense, as in the following example (5a). It also denotes past participles, which are verb forms employed in passive phrases, such as (5b), and verbal constructs including auxiliary verbs, such as in (5c). Auxiliary verbs (also known as assisting verbs) are verbs that follow the primary (lexical) verb in a verb phrase and convey agreement characteristics, such as be, have, and do in English. Raced is a past participle in a shortened relative clause in example (5d).

  1. The Corvette raced down the street.
  2. The Corvette was raced at the Daytona Speedway by a driver named McMurray.
  3. McMurray has raced in Talladega and Indianapolis.
  4. Danielle emailed me a photograph of the Corvette raced at the Daytona Speedway.

Other inflections in English are necessary to meet the requirement that subjects and verbs agree in number. They laugh is grammatically correct, but *He laughs or *They laughs are incorrect. Plurality is marked on nouns with a –s morpheme (one boy, two boys) while singularity is marked on verbs with a –s morpheme (one boy, two boys) (they laugh, he laughs). (A third – morpheme, unrelated to number agreement, is used to indicate possession, as in Beth’s mother.) The three –s morphemes also follow a morphophonological rule that varies their pronunciation depending on the stem’s final phoneme. A voiceless form [s] is produced following a voiceless phoneme (fights, cats, Beth’s), a voiced form [z] following a voiced phoneme (finds, dogs, Bob’s), and a syllabic form [ɪz] following phonemes like /s/ or /z/ (freezes, passes, Max’s), /ʃ/ or /ʒ/ (brushes, garages, Raj’s), or /ʧ/ or /ʤ/ (judges, peaches, Marge’s).

Gender and case are marked through inflectional morphemes in several languages. Articles and adjectives in Spanish, for example, must correspond in gender with the noun they modify. So, depending on whether it modifies a male or feminine noun, the adjective nio alto (‘tall boy’) or nia alta (‘tall girl’) has a distinct ending (–o or –a). Finally, case is indicated via inflectional morphemes. In Russian, the noun that signifies “sister” has several case endings depending on the grammatical function it fulfils in the sentence: cecmpa, [sestra], cecmpy, [sestru], cecmpe.

Derivational Morphemes

Morphemes that can change the meaning or grammatical category of the stem to which they are fastened belong to the second class of bound morphemes, derivational morphemes. When you add –er to a verb, it becomes a noun (make, maker); when you add –ness to an adjective, it becomes a noun (kind, kindness); and when you add –ly to an adjective, it becomes an adverb (kind, kindness) (interesting, interestingly).

Some derivational morphemes change the meaning of a word without changing its part of speech. Un–, for example, is a prefix that can be used to change the meaning of adjectives, as in unkind and uninteresting. Another example of a derivational morpheme is re–, which is appended to a verb to suggest repeating the stem’s activity, as in rewash or reconsider.

By morphophonological rules, several derivational morphemes change the stem’s pronunciation. The phonological change caused by the derivational morpheme –ity is common. When –ity is added to stupid and specific, the position of the stress shifts to the right: stupidity and specificity (note the final /k/ in specific also changes to /s/ in specificity).

Also, when –ity is added to sane, the vowel in the stem changes: sanity.


The morphological component of grammar, in general, includes both inflectional and derivational morphemes that generate new words for a variety of syntactic and semantic functions. Many are linked to morphophonological rules, which provide information about the word’s pronunciation when a morpheme is attached to a stem.

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