An Introduction to Morphology

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Coinage and Definition

Morphology is the term which had no association with language when it was first coined by the German philosopher and poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the nineteenth century. It was first coined in a biological context. However, the word ‘morphology’ came from the Greek word ‘morph’ which means ‘shape/form’. So, we can say that morphology is the philosophy (‘logos’) of shape or forms. Still, we have not found any clue that morphology is a term related to language or linguistics. In biology and in geology morphology means the structures or forms of the body and the earth respectively. So, in linguistics also, morphology must refer to a study which is related to the forms of language. The most basic form of language is the word. Thus, we can say that morphology is the study of forms of words. To be more specific, morphology is the branch of linguistics that studies the formation of words and their internal structures.

Linguists often define morphology as the study of morphemes.What is a morpheme? A morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit of a language. The linguists who investigate words, the formation of words, and the structures of words are called morphologists. They mostly identify and study morphemes which construct new words.

You cannot divide a morpheme into smaller meaningful parts. You can divide a word according to its syllables. For instance, you can divide ‘wonderful’ into three syllables ‘won’, ‘der’, and ‘ful’ because syllables are determined by sound. However, morphemes are not determined by sound; morphemes are determined through meaning. Every morpheme must contribute a certain meaning to the word. So, the word ‘wonderful’ can be divided into two morphemes ‘wonder’ and ‘ful’. Together these two morphemes form a new word with new grammatical function. But none of these morphemes cannot be divided into more parts which contain meanings.

Types of Morphemes: 

According to their meaning: 

  1. Free Morphemes: morphemes that have meaning on their own. Example: ‘manage’ in the word ‘management’, ‘betray’ in the word ‘betrayal’, etc. 
  1. Bound Morphemes: morphemes that have no meaning on their own but they can create new words with new meaning by being added to the free morphemes. Examples: ‘ment’ in the word ‘management’, ‘al’ in the word ‘betrayal’, etc.

Bound Morphemes are also of two types: 

According to their properties: 

  1. Affixes: morphemes that are added before and after the root words. There are two types of affixes:
    • Prefix: When an affix is added before the root word, it is called a prefix. Example: misuse, abuse, anti-biotic, etc.
    • Suffix: When an affix is added after the root word, it is called a suffix. Example: treatment, probationary, confusion, etc.
  2. Stems: morphemes that are in the lexical center of words. Usually, they are the free morphemes. Example: misuse, probationary, abuse, etc.

 Read Also: An Introduction to Phonology

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