Morphology - Unit One - Lesson No. 2

The concept of word

Word is divided as one or more morphemes that can stand alone in a language. Words that consist of only one morpheme like giraffe, wiggle and yellow can be termed simple or simplex words. Words that are made up of more than one morpheme are called complex, e.g., opposition, intellectual, crystallize, prewash, repressive, blackboard and so on.

The story does not stop with this simple distinction only. Words contrast with lexemes, types and tokens. To better illustrate these concepts, take the following sentence as an example.

My friend and I walked to class together, because our classes are in the same building and we dislike walking alone.


How many words are there in the above sentence? If we are counting every instance in which a word occurs in a sentence, regardless of whether that word has occurred before, we are counting word tokens. If, however, we are counting a word one, no matter how many times it occurs in a sentence, we are counting word types. We have 16 types in the above sentence, (Lieber 2009, P. 4). As such, the class of linguistic units is called a type and examples or individual members of the classes are called tokens. For example, hello, hi, good morning are three different tokens of the type “Greeting” , (Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, 3rd Ed., under TYPE).

A lexeme, on the other hand, is the smallest unit in the meaning system of a language that can be distinguished from the other similar units. A lexeme is an abstract unit. It can occur in many different forms in actual spoken or written sentences, and it regarded as the same lexeme even when inflected. For example, in English, all inflected forms such as give, gives, given, giving, gave would belong to the one lexeme give, (Longman Dictionary of Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics, 3rd Ed., under LEXEME).

One way of thinking about lexemes is that they ate the basis of dictionary entries; dictionaries typically have a single entry for each lexeme. So if we are counting lexemes in the sentence above, we would count class and classes, walk and walking, I and my and our and we as single lexemes; the above sentence then has 16 lexemes, (Lieber 2009, 5).

Words are classified into two types: grammatical words and phonological words. Grammatical words and phonological words are distinct because there is no one-to-one match between them, e.g., the phonological word /tu/ represents at least three grammatical words to, two and too. The distinction between the two hierarchies becomes apparent when we go below the level of word. Words can be divided into syllables in phonology, but in grammar words are divided into morphemes. Any match between syllable and morpheme is fortuitous; many polysyllabic words are monomorphemic, e.g., little, butter, carpet and so on.

Words, then, are analyzed in grammar into smaller units called morphemes. We are justified in dividing a word in to morphemes if the units that we are identify as morphemes can be recognized as parts of other words and have the same meaning of function. For example, revitalized can be analyzed into the following component morphemes: re-vital-ize-d.

The unit re- occurs in retard, reprocess, retake with the meaning “again”. The unit vital occurs by itself as a word in vitality with the meaning of “life or liveliness”. The unit –ize occurs in nationalize, pluralize, regularize with the function ‘change this adjective into a verb’. The unit –d occurs in tied, turned, loved with the meaning “past tense or past participle”, (Howards 1982, 109).

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