Definition and Examples of a Morph in Linguistics

A person morphed with a cat head on a human body

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In linguistics, a morph is a word segment that represents one morpheme (the smallest unit of language that has meaning) in sound or writing. It's a written or pronounced portion of a word, such as an affix (a prefix or suffix). For example, the word infamous is made up of three morphs—in-, fam(e), -eous—each of which represents one morpheme. The word has two affixes, both a prefix (in-) and a suffix (-eous) attached to a root word.

Key Takeaways: Morphs

  • Morphs are portions of a word, such as affixes.
  • Morphs that are also whole words are called free morphs.
  • The different sounds that pronounce a morph are its allomorphs.
  • A morpheme is a description, such as "a past-tense verb ending." This morpheme is often represented by the morph -ed.

Morphs, Morphemes, and Allomorphs

Although a morpheme is an abstract unit of meaning, a morph is a formal unit with a physical shape. A morpheme is the description of what a morph is or does to a word. Author George David Morley explains: "For example, the morpheme meaning 'negative forming' is evidenced in adjectives by the morphs un as in unclear, in - inadequate, im - immoral, il - illegal, ig - ignoble, ir - irregular, non - non-existent, dis - dishonest." ("Syntax in Functional Grammar: An Introduction to Lexicogrammar in Systemic Linguistics." Continuum, 2000)

When something has multiple ways that a sound can be created, these are its allomorphs. Authors Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Fudeman explain the concept this way: "For example, the English past tense morpheme that we spell -ed has various [allomorphs or variants]. It is realized as [t] after the voiceless [p] of jump (cf. jumped), as [d] after the voiced [l] of repel (cf. repelled), and as [əd] after the voiceless [t] of root or the voiced [d] of wed (cf. rooted and wedded)." ("What Is Morphology?" 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011)

Types of Morphs

A morph that can stand alone as a word is called a free morph. For example, the adjective big, the verb walk, and the noun home are free morphs.

Root words may or may not be free morphs. For example, the root in the word construction is struct, meaning to build. The word also contains the prefix con- and -ion (the latter of which shows that the word is a noun).

A morph that can't stand alone as a word is called a bound morph; the endings -er (as in bigger), -ed (as in walked), and -s (as in homes) are bound morphs (or affixes).

When Is a Word Part a Morph?

For most language users, being able to pare a word down into its parts (root words and affixes) is sufficient for the purposes of understanding a complex word. Take the word antidisestablishment. It can be broken into the following: anti- (against), dis- (taking apart), establish (root word; to disestablish is to end an official status, especially of a church), and -ment (showing the word is a noun). Surmised from the sum of its parts, then, the word means being against the state breaking up a church, and it particularly refers to the 19th-century Church of England.

Conversely, for most users, knowledge of affixes will suffice to create words from parts. This is what George W. Bush was going for when he said that people "misunderestimate" him. Native speakers of English who know what the prefix mis- means understands what the former president was trying to say, even though he created a new word for the popular lexicon (a Bushism) when he misspoke. (Bushism is also an example of a created word, containing Bush, referring to the former president, and -ism, a noun, meaning characteristic of the word it's attached to.)

Instead of stopping at the root word and affix level, some linguists take the word dissection even farther, as author Keith Denning and colleagues describe: "Etymologists and those interested in the history of the language may go in the opposite direction and isolate as a morph every sound that ever had a distinct function, even if they have to go as far back as Proto-Indo-European to find it. Both viewpoints are valid, as long as the criteria are clearly stated." (Keith Denning, Brett Kessler, and William R. Leben, "English Vocabulary Elements," 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007.)
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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of a Morph in Linguistics." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Definition and Examples of a Morph in Linguistics. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of a Morph in Linguistics." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 28, 2023).