Morphology is the study of how words are formed. Many words are simply a stem with no other morphemes added, such as table. Words that are composed of more than one morpheme have undergone some type of morphological process.
Morphological processes alter stems to derive new words. They may change the word’s meaning (derivational) or its grammatical functions (inflectional). There are several different types of processes, not all of which are present in all languages. Some of these are concatenative, meaning that they involve the linear combination of morphemes (affixation, for example), while others are non-concatenative, involving the internal alternation of morphemes.
Compounding can be used to form new words through combining two stems as in the words blackbird or housekeeper. Compounds can be composed of many parts of speech. Some examples include:
noun-noun such as horseshoe
noun- verb such as trouble-shoot
adjective –verb or high-jump
adjective-adjective such as bittersweet
adjective-noun such as jumping bean
verb-noun such as spelling bee
verb- preposition such as push-up
preposition-verb such as out-cast
As you can see from the examples above, the meaning of a compound is not affected by spelling. Some compounds are one word as in housefly, hyphenated as in extra-terrestrial or separated by a space as in kill joy. They can even be composed of more than two words as in out-of-pocket. All compounds have a
head, which is the element that determines the part of speech. In English, compounds are right-headed, meaning that the right
constituent determines the
grammatical category of the word. Blackbird is a kind of bird, and is used as a noun. However, when a preposition is found in the rightmost position, the left element will be the head. This is due to the fact that prepositions are closed class, function words which are not used to create new meaning.
Compounds in all languages are not right-headed. For instance in Spanish the compound word lavaplatos (dishwasher) is left-headed: it is an entity that washes (lava-) a kind of dish (platos). Compound verbs are found in certain languages as well. Dutch combines weer ‘again’ with schijn ‘to shine’ to form the complex verb weer-schijn ‘to reflect.’ Farsi forms many verbs by combining a noun with the verb kaerdaen “to do or make:” fekr (thought) + kaerdan = fekr kaerdaen “to think.”
Compounds are characterized as either endocentric or exocentric. The former means that the compound is semantically transparent from the meaning of its constituents. In other words, it is a type of its head (as blackbird is a type of bird). An exocentric compound is not as easily understood as the sum of its components. For example, a pickpocket is not a type of pocket but someone who picks things from pockets.
Incorporation is another form of bringing together one meaning from several components. Although different from compounding, incorporation appears to share some characteristics with compounding, but there are also important differences between the two. Incorporation is most prevalent in polysynthetic languages, and is a process by which a word (often a verb) incorporates or combines with another word while maintaining its syntactic function. One effect that this has is to decrease the valency of the verb; that is, a verb will take fewer arguments in its incorporated form. Thus a transitive verb that incorporates its direct object will then act as an intransitive verb, unable to take additional arguments. The following example from Mohawk shows an object noun incorporated into the verb:
‘I’m making clothes.’ (Mithun 2009)
The phrase directly translates as ‘I am clothes-making,’ where the object is a part of the verb itself.
Here is another example, showing both the unincorporated (2a) and incorporated (2b) versions of the sentence from the Southern Wakashan language
Nuu-chah-nulth (Wojdak 2004):
2a) ʔuʔaamitʔiš čakup maht’ii
ʔu-ʔaap-mit-ʔiš čakup maht’ii
Ø-buy-PST-3.IND man house
‘A man bought a house.’
2b) maht’iiʔamitʔiš čakup
‘A man house-bought.’
‘A man bought a house.’
These sentences show that noun incorporation is not necessarily a required process, but it is a productive form in those languages that employ it. Furthermore, languages have rules specifying what can and cannot be incorporated; in Nuu-chah-nulth, for example, the object may be incorporated into the verb (as in the example above), but the subject may not. Thus while incorporation may not be widely used in languages such as English, it is an important morphological process in many languages of the world.
One of the most common morphological processes, affixation involves the attachment of morphemes to a stem. There are several types of affixes, classified in terms of where they attach to a stem: beginning, end, middle, or around. Prefixes attach to the beginning of a stem. For example, the morpheme un- attaches to stems in such words as unbelievable or unkind. Suffixes attach to the end of stems, such as the plural morpheme –(e)s in English: languages, bushes. Turkish uses the plural morpheme –lar: kitap ‘book’ kitaplar ‘books.’
Affixation is used in many languages to mark inflections on verbs. Spanish marks verbs for person with a
Hablar ‘to speak’
hablo ‘I speak’
hablas ‘you (singular) speak’
habla ‘he/she speaks’
Swahili, on the other hand, uses a series of prefixes to mark person, tense, and object of a verb:
Verbal prefixes in Swahili:
a- ta- ni- penda
‘He will like me’
Only prefixation and suffixation are found in English, but other languages display additional affixation processes. These include infixes, in which
case a morpheme is inserted within another stem morpheme rather than at the word edge. The following examples from Leti (Blevins 1999) provide an example:
Nominalizing -ni- in Leti
kaati ‘to carve’ k-ni-aati ‘carving’
kasi ‘to dig’ k-ni-asi ‘act of digging’
kakri ‘to cry’ k-ni-akri ‘act of crying’
Finally, a circumfix is a morpheme with two parts, one that attaches to the beginning of the word/stem, and one to the end. A common example is the past tense in German, which is formed by affixing a verbal root with ge- and –t. Thus lachen (laugh) becomes gelacht (laughed). Circumfixation can also be seen the simultaneous prefixation and suffixation.
Another morphological process seen in some of the languages of the world is reduplication. In this case a morpheme or a part of a morpheme is copied and attached to astem. Full reduplication results from copying the entire segment, while partial reduplication takes only part of the segment. Reduplication can serve many functions in languages, from making plural forms to forming more intense or diminutive forms of words. Here are a few examples from various languages:
Full Reduplication in Thai (intensification)
di: ‘to be good’ dí:di: ‘to be extremely good’
Here the entire word is copied and added to the stem.
Partial Reduplication in the Niutao
dialect of Tuvaluan (verbs have different forms when used with singular and plural subjects)
mafuli mafufuli ‘turned around’
kai kakai ‘eat’
apulu apupulu ‘capsize’
In this example the penultimate syllable is copied and inserted between the initial and second syllables.
Suppletion is a different type of morphological process. While in affixation and reduplication it is often easy to see how one form is related to another, suppletion involves a relationship between two forms that do not share phonological shapes. Generally, it is a relationship in which one form cannot be derived phonologically from the other. A few examples are found in the Indo-European languages. Consider the English word ‘good’ and its comparative and superlative forms ‘better’ and ‘best.’ These words ostensibly have little in common, and yet their meaning are integrally related. In Spanish, the present tense form of ‘I go’ is voy while the past tense is fui (cf. English ‘go’ and ‘went’). Once again, these have very different forms, whose close relationship is not readily apparent.
Morphological processes are not limited to adding or copying material along the words edge; they may instead change a word’s internal structure. Such changes can affect vowel quality, or otherwise alter the shape of the word. For example, in English there is a distinction between weak and strong verbs. Weak verbs form the past tense through the edition of a suffix (-ed), while strong verbs change their vowel: sing/sang, drive/drove. German uses an umlaut of a vowel in one of its processes of plural formation: vater (father), väter (fathers).
Stress placement and
Changes in stress and tone placement can also be used to change a word’s grammatical function or meaning. Many languages in the world use tone contrastively, and therefore may serve to make distinctions between different words and their grammatical functions. In the following examples from Maasai, only differences in the tones of the vowels distinguish the nominative from the accusative forms of the following words:
èlùkùnyá èlúkúnyá ‘head’
èncùmàtá èncúmátá ‘horse’
Likewise, changes in the placement of stress in a word distinguish different meanings. Spanish illustrates contrastive stress in minimal pairs such as ‘bebe (he/she drinks) and be’be (baby); ‘canto (I sing) and can’to (he/she sang). (An apostrophe indicates that the stress falls on the following syllable).
The examples highlighted here only begin to scratch the surface of the variety of ways in which languages employ these processes. Discovering which processes a language uses and seeing the unique ways in which they do so is part of the fun of studying morphology.