Morphology - Unit Two - Lesson No. 7

Free and bound morphemes

Morphemes are of two types: free morphemes and bound morphemes. A free morpheme is one which can be used as a word by itself, or which can function as a word of its own. A bound morpheme, on the other hand, is one that only occurs in combination with other morphemes within a word; it cannot be used as a word by itself. In boys, for example, {boy} is a free morpheme, whereas {-s} is a bound morpheme. Similarly, in went, {go} is a free morpheme and [-ed} is a bound morpheme.

Below are some more examples taken from McCarthy (2002), all of which consist uncontroversially of two morphemes, one is free and the other is bound, separated by a hyphen:

  1. read-able
  2. hear-ing
  3. en-large
  4. perform-ance
  5. white-ness
  6. dark-en
  7. seek-er

In certain languages, in Chinese and Vietnamese, for instance, nearly all the morphemes are free. For the vast majority of languages, however, the distinction between a free and a bound morpheme is relevant and useful.

In some languages, certain morphemes can sometimes function as free morphemes and on other times, as bound morphemes. In Chinese, as an example, some morphemes are free in certain contexts and bound morphemes in other contexts. For instance, the morpheme mu is a bound morpheme when used to mean tree or wood , but when it is used to mean numb it is free.

  1. Wo shetou mu le.
  2. My tongue-Nom num ASP
  3. My tongue is numb.

Another example of this phenomenon in Chinese is the morpheme gong which means many things (‘labor, art, work, job’). It is bound in certain of these meanings (‘labor, art, industry') and free in others (‘work, job') (Packard 2004: 68).

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