Linguistish: English Morphology 101

Welcome to my first Linguistish post! Today’s lesson is…in the title. Okay, that was a terrible surprise. Onwards, dear chums!

Part I: What is this morphology you speak of?
As Julie Andrews once told us, the beginning is a very good place to start. A reasonable beginning in looking into language seems to me to be what this very sentence is made up of: words. We can go even smaller than this and look at morphemes, which combine to form words. While syntax looks at the structure of sentences, the study of the structure of words is called morphology.

morphology: an aspect of the study of grammar which looks at the structure of words, for example, how words can be built from smaller units. From the Greek morphē + logos (‘form’ + ‘word’).

Morphology can be split into two general domains: derivational and inflectional. Derivational morphology concerns itself with ways in which new words can be made by combining existing elements, such as un-believe-ab-ly, or tast-y (sometimes the spelling of morphemes can look a little strange – the adjective tasty is derived from the verb taste, but English spelling rules don’t allow for tastey).

Inflectional morphology looks at how words vary in order to express grammatical contrasts, for example, denoting plurality in the case of cake/cake-s.

Part II: So, a morpheme is a baby word?

morpheme: the smallest meaningful element in a language

Morphemes are the smallest elements in a language that have meaning in themselves. While phonemes, such as the ‘k’ sound in cake, are even smaller units, they are meaningless on their own. A word is also a smallest element, but a word must be free, whereas morphemes do not have to be able to stand on their own.


  • cake is one word, one morpheme
  • cake-s is one word, two morphemes
  • -s is not a word, but is one morpheme

The take-away from this? Morphemes are not the same as words.

Part III: Free the morpheme
Morphemes come in two flavours:

  • free morphemes, for example bake, which can be words by themselves
  • bound morphemes, for example -er, which are always attached to something else

They can also be:

  • roots (or stems), a single free morpheme
  • bases, one or more morphemes to which affixes can be added
  • affixes, bound morphemes that can be added to the beginning (prefixes), middle (infixes) or end (suffixes) of a morpheme

All roots are bases, but not all bases are roots. This is wonky and confusing, so here’s an example:

  • happy is both a root and a base
  • un- + happy = unhappy – still a base, because it can have affixes added (e.g. unhappy + -ness = unhappiness), but no longer a root, because it is more than one morpheme

Part IV: Affixation, that Alphabeat song
According to David Crystal, the Dumbledore of linguistics (without all the manipulation and general shadiness), prefixes in English are purely lexical [1]. This means they can be used to form new words with different meanings, for example, do/un-do. This makes them derivational.

Suffixes are mostly lexical [1]. They change the meaning of the base, for example, eat to eat-able. 

Willy Wonka knows what's up.  Gif credit:

Willy Wonka knows what’s up.
Gif credit:

Other suffixes are grammatical, in that they express a grammatical contrast. For example, –ed denotes past tense in regular verbs. This subset of suffixes is therefore inflectional. Cross-linguistically, English makes relatively little use inflection to provide grammatical information (more on that in another post).

Infixes are generally rare in English, but are more common in some other languages. Want an abso-bloody-lutely, fan-fuckin’-tastic example of English infixes? Just gave you two.

[1] Crystal, D., (1995), The Cambridge Encyclopaedia of English Language


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