Morph (Words and Word Parts)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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 in sound or writing. For example, the word infamous is made up of three morphs--in-, fam(e), -eous--each of which represents one morpheme.

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 (or roots).

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).

While a morpheme is an abstract unit of meaning, a morph is a formal unit with a physical shape.


From the Greek, "form, shape"

The Difference Between Morpheme and Morph

"The basic unit of grammatical meaning is the morpheme. . . . The unit of grammatical form which realizes a morpheme is called a morph. Generally speaking, the difference between the unit of meaning and the unit of form is theoretical and academic, as in most cases a morpheme is realized by only one morph. Thus, for example, the morpheme meaning table is represented by just one morphological form, the morph table, and the morpheme meaning difficult is realized by only the morph difficult. But in some instances the distinction between morpheme and morph is demonstrably real, that is to say where a single morpheme has several possible morph realizations, depending on the word context. 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."

Multiple Morphs

"The term 'morph' is sometimes used to refer specifically to the phonological realization of a morpheme. For example, the English past tense morpheme that we spell -ed has various morphs. 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). We can also call these morphs allomorphs or variants. The appearance of one morph over another, in this case, is determined by voicing and the place of articulation of the final consonant of the verb stem."

When Is a Word Part a Morph?

"There are many technical issues involved in deciding exactly what a morph is. How do we decide when we can stop dividing words up into smaller components? To many morphologists, the key issue is whether native speakers of English intuitively recognize subcomponents, or whether they can use subcomponents to create new words that other native speakers can understand. . . . A typical speaker would be able to break apart unreadable into un-read-able and make new words with each of those three parts, but breaking -able into -a-ble might not occur to him or her. . . .

"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."


George David Morley, Syntax in Functional Grammar: An Introduction to Lexicogrammar in Systemic Linguistics. Continuum, 2000

Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Fudeman, What is Morphology? 2nd ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2011

Keith Denning, Brett Kessler, and William R. Leben, English Vocabulary Elements, 2nd ed. Oxford University Press, 2007