Morphology

Influences in English vocabulary

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While phonetics and phonology deal with units of sound, morphology deals with units of meaning.  So, the smallest unit of any language is the phoneme, but the smallets unit of meaning in a language is a morpheme.  These are the units that make up words, so morphology is sometimes described as the study of the structure of words.  Sometimes, a morpheme can have just one phoneme; other times a morpheme may have many phonemes (or even many syallables!)

There are two major ways to talk about morphemes.  One is to talk about free morphemes (those that can–but don’t necessarily have to–stand alone as a word) and bound morphemes (those which have to be attached to another morpheme).  Another is to talk about where the morpheme typically occurs compared to other morphemes.  Affixes (prefixes, suffixes, andinfixes) can attach to stems or roots.  In some languages, you can also create a new morpheme through processes like reduplication, suppletion, or ablaut.  

Languages which string lots of morphemes together to create one word are called synthetic languages  or agglutinating languages. Kswahili, which treats the morphemes that make up entire sentences as one word, is a good example of a synthetic/agglutinating language.  Chinese, on the other hand, is an isolating language, meaning that it does not allow for many morphemes to combine into one word.  English falls somewhere in between.

Studying morphology helps students to understand that English spelling is not phonetic, but it also helps students to understand one of the reasons WHY English spelling is not phonetic.  The spelling of our langauge reflects morphemes that are sometimes pronounced differently in different circumstances.  For example, the word biographical is pronounced by most American English speakers so that the “graph” morpheme actually sounds like the word graph or the morpheme in grapheme.  (In fact, they are all the same morpheme.)  However, Americans often pronounce the word biography so that the vowel in this morpheme sounds more like the “uh” sound in the word tough than the “a” in graph.  We spell the morpheme the same in each word so that we preserve the morphological relationship between the two words.

Studying morphology helps to raise students’ metalinguistic awareness, making them more likely to recognize patterns within words.  Consequently, they will be more likely to recognize relationships between words and their reading comprehension will improve.

There are a number of good sources on the web that deal with morphology, including:

1)  Wikipedia’s Entry on Morphology (once written by trained linguists–hopefully not destroyed by the time you find this link)

2) Dr. Corrine McCarthy’s Essay (on the Popular Linguistics Website)

3) Dr. Boree’s Morphology Page

4) Dr Carstairs-McCarthy’s Book (An Introduction to English Morphology: Words and Their Structure by Edinburgh University Press, but available as a free e-book at this link).

5) Dr. Kleanthes Grohmann’s Class Handouts (This page contains a list of links to handouts for his English Syntax and Morphology class)

These links will help you and your students to learn about morphology on your own, but there are some common pitfalls that you can warn students about.  Some typical examples of confusion include:

1.  Students sometimes think that morpheme cannot be a single phoneme.  This is wrong.  The sounds in the word “a”  (/ei/) are considered one phoneme (sound unit) by English speakers, but, in this case they also form a free (stand-alone) morpheme (the indefinite article).

2. Sometimes students think that a morpheme is the same as a syllable, but this is also wrong.  The word “able” cannot be broken down into more than one morpheme, but it is two syllables.

3.)  Sometimes students think that if you can find a words spelled in another word, that is a morpheme.  This is wrong, too.  Morphology is not a seek-and-find puzzle.  There is no “cat” morpheme (meaning kitten) in the word catastrophe, and there is no “hell” in the word hello.  (Though note, it’s sometimes difficult to convince people of this second example, as you can see in this link to a news story about those who are using the word heaveno.)

Do you have more ideas or resources for teaching morphology?  Leave us a note in the comment section or drop us an email!  We’d be happy to feature it in the Classroom Activities series.

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