morphology (words)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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"[M]orphology is concerned first and foremost with the processes of forming words, that is, how words are formed from smaller units and how the smaller units interact in speech" (Zeki Hamawand, Morphology in English, 2011). Jamie Grill / Getty Images


Morphology is the branch of linguistics (and one of the major components of grammar) that studies word structures, especially in terms of morphemes. Adjective: morphological.

Traditionally, a basic distinction has been made between morphology (which is primarily concerned with the internal structures of words) and syntax (which is primarily concerned with the ways in which words are put together in sentences).

In recent decades, however, numerous linguists have challenged this distinction. See, for example, lexicogrammar and lexical-functional grammar (LFG).

The two main branches of morphology (inflectional morphology and lexical word-formation) are discussed below in Examples and Observations. Also see:

From the Greek, "shape, form"

Examples and Observations

  • "The term 'morphology' has been taken over from biology where it is used to denote the study of the forms of plants and animals. . . . It was first used for linguistic purposes in 1859 by the German linguist August Schleicher (Salmon 2000), to refer to the study of the form of words. In present-day linguistics, the term 'morphology' refers to the study of the internal structure of words, and of the systematic form-meaning correspondences between words. . . .

    "The notion 'systematic' in the definition of morphology given above is important. For instance, we might observe a form difference and a corresponding meaning difference between the English noun ear and the verb hear. However, this pattern is not systematic: there are no similar word pairs, and we cannot form new English verbs by adding h- to a noun. There is no possible verb to heye with the meaning 'to see' derived from the noun eye. Therefore, such pairs of words are of no relevance to morphology."
    (Geert E. Booij, An Introduction to Linguistic Morphology, 3rd ed., Oxford University Press, 2012)
  • The Aims of Morphology
    "Morphology is an essential subfield of linguistics. Generally, it aims to describe the structures of words and patterns of word formation in a language. Specifically, it aims to (i) pin down the principles for relating the form and meaning of morphological expressions, (ii) explain how the morphological units are integrated and the resulting formations interpreted, and (iii) show how morphological units are organized in the lexicon in terms of affinity and contrast. The study of morphology uncovers the lexical resources of language, helps speakers to acquire the skills of using them creatively, and consequently express their thoughts and emotions with eloquence."
    (Zeki Hamawand, Morphology in English: Word Formation in Cognitive Grammar. Continuum, 2011)
  • Two Branches of Morphology
    - "For English, [morphology] means devising ways of describing the properties of such disparate items as a, horse, took, indescribable, washing machine, and antidisestablishmentarianism. A widely recognized approach divides the field into two domains: lexical or derivational morphology studies the way in which new items of vocabulary can be built up out of combinations of elements (as in the case of in-describ-able); inflectional morphology studies the ways words vary in their form in order to express a grammatical contrast (as in the case of horses, where the ending marks plurality)."
    (David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd ed. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

    - "The distinction between words and lexemes provides the basis for the division of morphology into two branches: inflectional morphology and lexical word-formation.

    "Inflectional morphology deals with the inflectional forms of various lexemes. It has something of the character of an appendix to the syntax, the major component of the grammar. Syntax tells us when a lexeme may or must carry a certain inflectional property, while inflectional morphology tells us what form it takes when it carries that inflectional property.

    "Lexical word-formation, by contrast, is related to the dictionary. It describes the processes by which new lexical bases are formed and the structure of complex lexical bases, those composed of more than one morphological element. The traditional term is simply 'word-formation.'"
    (Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2002)

  • Two Basic Approaches to Morphological Analysis
    "There are two complementary approaches to morphology, analytic and synthetic. The linguist needs both.

    "The analytic approach has to do with breaking words down, and it is usually associated with American structuralist linguistics of the first half of the twentieth century. . . . No matter what language we're looking at, we need analytic methods that are independent of the structures we are examining; preconceived notions might interfere with an objective, scientific analysis. This is especially true when dealing with unfamiliar languages.

    "The second approach to morphology is more often associated with theory than with methodology, perhaps unfairly. This is the synthetic approach. It basically says, 'I have a lot of little pieces here. How do I put them together?' This question presupposes that you already know what the pieces are. Analysis must in some way precede synthesis."
    (Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Fudeman, What Is Morphology? 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

    Pronunciation: mor-FAWL-eh-gee