Morphology - Unit One - Lesson No. 4

The Concept of Morpheme

The linguistic term for the most elemental unit of grammatical form is morpheme . The word is derived from the Greek word morphe, meaning “form”. The study of the internal structure of words, and of the rules by which words are formed, is morphology . This word itself consists of two morphemes, morph + ology. The suffix –ology means “science of” or “branch of knowledge concerning.” Thus, the meaning of morphology is “the science of words forms,” (Fromkin, et al 2007: 77).

Linguists define a morpheme as the smallest unit of language that has its own meaning. Simple words like giraffe, wiggle and yellow are morphemes, but so are prefixes like re- and pre- and suffixes like –ize and –er, (Aronoff and Fudeman 2005). In other words, morphemes, the morphological building blocks of words, are defined as the minimal linguistic units with a lexical or grammatical meaning. The grammatical or lexical meaning is the information that the morpheme contains. For example, -ed contains the information “past tense”, the morpheme “I” contains the information “speaker”, “you” contains the information “addressee” and “cat” contains the information “pet animal”.

Sometimes, a morpheme contains either lexical or grammatical meaning but most frequently a morpheme carries both a lexical and a grammatical meaning. Furthermore, a morpheme can be either free or bound. For instance, the noun buyer consists of two morphemes: buy and –er. The verbal morpheme is called a free or lexical morpheme, because it can occur as a word by itself, whereas –er is an affix (hence a bound morpheme that cannot function as a word on its own). This is indicated by the hyphen preceding this morpheme: it requires another morpheme to appear before it in a word, (Booij and Greet 2007, P.9).

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