More on various categories of morphemes

Prefixes and suffixes are by definition always bound, but what about the stems? Are they always free? In English, some stems that occur with negative prefixes are not free, such as -kempt and -sheveled.

Morphemes can also be divided into the two categories of content and function morphemes, a distinction that is conceptually distinct from the free-bound distinction but that partially overlaps with it in practice.

The idea behind this distinction is that some morphemes express some general sort of content, in a way that is as independent as possible of the grammatical system of a particular language -- while other morphemes are heavily tied to a grammatical function, expressing syntactic relationships between units in a sentence, or obligatorily-marked categories such as number or tense.

Thus (the stems of) nouns, verbs, adjectives are typically content morphemes: "throw," "green," "Kim," and "sand" are all English content morphemes. Content morphemes are also often called "open-class" morphemes, because they belong to categories that are open to the invention of arbitrary new items. People are always making up or borrowing new morphemes in these categories.: "smurf," "nuke," "byte," "grok."

By contrast, prepositions ("to", "by"), articles ("the", "a"), pronouns ("she", "his"), and conjunctions are typically function morphemes, since they either serve to tie elements together grammatically ("hit by a truck," "Kim and Leslie," "Lee saw his dog"), or express obligatory (in a given language!) morphological features like definiteness ("she found a table" or "she found the table" but not "*she found table"). Function morphemes are also called "closed-class" morphemes, because they belong to categories that are essentially closed to invention or borrowing -- it is very difficult to add a new preposition, article or pronoun.

For years, some people have tried to introduce non-gendered pronouns into English, for instance "sie" (meaning either "he" or "she", but not "it"). This is much harder to do than to get people to adopt a new noun or verb.

Try making up a new article. For instance, we could try to borrow from the Manding languages an article (written /le/) that means something like "I'm focusing on this phrase as opposed to anything else I could have mentioned." We'll just slip in this new article after the definite or indefinite "the" or "a" -- that's where it goes in Manding, though the rest of the order is completely different. Thus we would say "Kim bought an apple at the-le fruit stand," meaning "it's the fruit stand (as opposed to anyplace else) where Kim bought an apple;" or "Kim bought an-le apple at the fruit stand," meaning "it's an apple (as opposed to any other kind of fruit) that Kim bought at the fruit stand."

This is a perfectly sensible kind of morpheme to have. However, the chances of persuading the rest of the English-speaking community to adopt it are negligible.

In some ways the open/closed terminology is clearer than content/function, since obviously function morphemes also always have some content!

The concept of the morpheme does not directly map onto the units of sound that represent morphemes in speech. To do this, linguists developed the concept of the allomorph. Here is the definition given in a well-known linguistic workbook:

Allomorphs: Nondistinctive realizations of a particular morpheme that have the same function and are phonetically similar. For example, the English plural morpheme can appear as [s] as in cats, [z] as in dogs, or ['z] as in churches. Each of these three pronunciations is said to be an allomorph of the same morpheme.


Another important and perhaps universal distinction is the one between derivational and inflectional morphemes.

Derivational morphemes makes new words from old ones (Crystal, p. 90.) Thus creation is formed from create , but they are two separate words.

Derivational morphemes generally:

1) Change the part of speech or the basic meaning of a word. Thus -ment added to a verb forms a noun (judg-ment). re-activate means "activate again."

2) Are not required by syntactic relations outside the word. Thus un-kind combines un- and kind into a single new word, but has no particular syntactic connections outside the word -- we can say he is unkind or he is kind or they are unkind or they are kind, depending on what we mean.

3) Are often not productive -- derivational morphemes can be selective about what they'll combine with, and may also have erratic effects on meaning. Thus the suffix -hood occurs with just a few nouns such as brother, neighbor, and knight, but not with most others. e.g., *friendhood, *daughterhood, or *candlehood. Furthermore "brotherhood" can mean "the state or relationship of being brothers," but "neighborhood" cannot mean "the state or relationship of being neighbors."

4) Typically occur between the stem and any inflectional affixes. Thus in governments,-ment, a derivational suffix, precedes -s, an inflectional suffix.

5) In English, may appear either as prefixes or suffixes: pre-arrange, arrange-ment.

Inflectional morphemes: vary (or "inflect") the form of words in order to express grammatical features, such as singular/plural or past/present tense. Thus Boy and boys, for example, are two different forms of the "same" word; the choice between them, singular vs. plural, is a matter of grammar and thus the business of inflectional morphology. (Crystal, p. 90.)

Inflectional Morphemes generally:

1) Do not change basic meaning or part of speech, e.g., big, bigg-er, bigg-est are all adjectives.

2) Express grammatically-required features or indicate relations between different words in the sentence. Thus in Lee love-s Kim: -s marks the 3rd person singular present form of the verb, and also relates it to the 3rd singular subject Lee.

3) Are productive. Inflectional morphemes typically combine freely with all members of some large class of morphemes, with predictable effects on usage/meaning. Thus the plural morpheme can be combined with nearly any noun, usually in the same form, and usually with the same effect on meaning.

4) Occur outside any derivational morphemes. Thus in ration-al-iz-ation-s the final -s is inflectional, and appears at the very end of the word, outside the derivational morphemes -al, -iz, -ation.

5) In English, are suffixes only.

Some English morphemes, by category:

derivational  inflectional 
-ation  -s Plural 
-al  -s Possessive 
-ize  -ed Past 
-ic  -ing Progressive 
-y  -er Comparative 
-ous  -est Superlative

some examples from DERIVATIONAL morphology:

is added to a verb or root (finalize, anim-)
to give a noun (finalization, animation)

is added to a verb (tie)
to give a verb(untie)

is added to an adjective (happy)
to give an adjective (unhappy)

is added to a noun (institution)
to give an adjective (institutional)

is added to an adjective (concrete)
to give a verb (concretize)

What is the meaning of the affix?

The meanings of derivational affixes are sometimes clear, but often less clear because of changes that occur over time. The following two sets of examples show that the prefix un- is easily interpreted as a negative, but the prefix con- is more opaque.

un-  untie 

con-  constitution 

Are derivational affixes sensitive to the historical source of the roots they attach to?

Although English is a Germanic language, and most of its basic vocabulary derives from Old English, there is also a sizeable vocabulary that derives from Romance (Latin and French). Some English affixes, such as re-, attach freely to vocabulary from both sources.

ROOT  tie  consider 
  free form  free form 
  Germanic root  Latinate root 
SOURCE Old English tygan, "to tie"  Latin considerare, "to examine" 
PREFIX  retie  reconsider 
SUFFIX  reties  reconsiders 
  retying reconsideration 
  retyings reconsiderations 

The suffix -ize, objected to by Edwin Newman in words like hospitalize, has a long and venerable history. Many of you chose to look up -ize words as part of your first assignment.

According to Hans Marchand, who wrote a book entitled The Categories and Types of Present-Day English Word Formation, (University of Alabama Press, 1969), the suffix -ize comes originally from the Greek -izo. Many words ending with this suffix passed from Ecclesiastical Greek into Latin, where, by the fourth century, they had become established as verbs with the ending -izare, such as barbarizare, catechizare, christianizare. In Old French we find many such verbs, belonging primarily to the ecclesistical sphere: baptiser (11th c.), canoniser (13th c.), exorciser (14th c.).

The first -ize words to be found in English are loans with both a French and Latin pattern such as baptize (1297), catechize, and organize (both 15th c.) Towards the end of the 16th century, however, we come across many new formations in English, such as bastardize, equalize, popularize, and womanize. The formal and semantic patterns were the same as those from the borrowed French and Latin forms, but owing to the renewed study of Greek, the educated had become more familiar with its vocabulary and used the patterns of Old Greek word formation freely.

Between 1580 and 1700, the disciplines of literature, medicine, natural science and theology introduced a great deal of new terminology into the language. Some of the terms still in use today include criticize, fertilize, humanize, naturalize, satirize, sterilize, and symbolize. The growth of science contributed vast numbers of -ize formations through the 19th century and into the 20th.

The -ize words collected by students in last year's course show that -ize is almost entirely restricted to Romance vocabulary, the only exceptions we found being womanize and winterize. Even though most contemporary English speakers are not aware of which words in their vocabulary are from which source, apparently, in coining new words, they have respected this distinction.

The major differences between derivational and inflectional morphology

  derivational  inflectional 
position  closer to stem  further from stem 
addable on to?  yes  not in English
changes stem? yes no
productive? (often) no (usually) yes
meaning? (often) unpredictable predictable


Constituent structure of morphemes

The constituent morphemes of a word can be organized into a hierarchical structure. Section 5.1 of Language Files illustrates this structure by means of tree diagrams.

To figure out how to draw the diagram, we need to see whether un- or -able can be attached directly to use. According to Language Files, "The prefix un-, meaning 'not', attaches only to adjectives and creates new words that are also adjectives. (Compare with unkind, unwise, and unhappy.) The suffix -able, on the other hand, attaches to verbs and forms words that are adjectives. (Compare with stoppable, doable, and washable.) Therefore, un- cannot attach to use, since use is a verb and not an adjective. However, if -able attaches first to the stem use, then it creates an adjective, usable, and the prefix un- is allowed to combine with it. Thus, the formation of the word unusable is a two-step process whereby use and -able attach first, then un- attaches to the word usable."

Now let's consider the word unlockable. We can see that there are two different meanings for this word: the one corresponding to the left-hand figure, meaning "not lockable," and the one corresponding to the right-hand figure, meaning "able to be unlocked."


By making explicit the different possible hierarchies for a single word, we can better understand why its meaning might be ambiguous. And, in fact, un- can indeed attach to verbs: untie, unbutton, uncover, uncage, unwrap... Larry Horn (1988) points out that the verbs that permit prefixation with un- are those that effect a change in state in some object, the form with un- undoing (!) that change. And thus we can account for the two senses of unlockable: the sense derived from the suffix -able combining with the verb lockto form an adjective lockable and then the adjective combining with the prefix un- to form a new adjective unlockable, as in the lefthand tree above, vs. the sense derived from the prefix un- attaching to the verb lock to form a new verb unlock and then combining with the suffix -able to form an adjective unlockable, as in the righthand tree above.