Morpheme

A morpheme is the smallest meaningful part of any language. It might be a word, or it might be part of a word.

Morphemes sometimes stand-alone, making them roots, and sometimes work as part of a longer word, making them an affix. Every word, no matter if it is a stand-alone morpheme or not, is composed of at least one or more. 

Morpheme pronunciation: mor-feem

Morpheme definition and examples

 

Definition and Explanation of Morpheme 

The study of morphemes is known as morphology. It is concerned with breaking down language, understanding its parts, and how those parts work together. In morphology, researches story prefixes, suffixes, and more. Studying morphemes, or the small parts of words is just one part of the area of research.

 

Types of Morphemes

All morphemes, no matter what role they play in a  word, can be categorized as “free” or “bound.” These categories are mutually exclusive. This means that a morpheme cannot belong to both.  

  • Free Morpheme: also known as an unfound morpheme or a free-standing morpheme. It functions independently of words. Free morphemes are simple words that have a single morpheme. Many English words are free morphemes. When a word cannot be divided into smaller parts it’s a free morpheme. For example: “go,” “now,” “can,” “stay,” and “quick.” 
  • Bound Morpheme: a word element that cannot stand alone as its own word. Bound morphemes can be prefixes and suffixes. When a writer attaches a bound morpheme to a free morpheme they can create a new word or a new form of the same word. For example, add the bound morpheme “re” onto the free morpheme “start.” There are hundreds of bound morphemes in the English language. When bound morphemes are attached to free morphemes new words are formed. There is no limit to the number of new words that might be created by combining these two types of morphemes together. There is also no limit to the number of bound morphemes on might attach to the base word. 

Additionally, there are two different types of bound morphemes. These are: 

  • Inflectional Morpheme: influence the base word. It allows the word to change quantity, tense, gender, or person while not changing the word itself. There are only eight inflectional morphemes n the English language. These include the comparative “er,” past tense “ed”  and possessive “’s.” 
  • Derivational Morpheme: another type of bound morpheme that influences/changes the base or free morpheme it’s attached to. The “re” in “restart” is a good example. Others include suffixes like “ish” and “y” and prefixes like “im” and “un.” 

 

Affix Meaning 

An affix is something that’s added to the beginning or end of a word in order to change its meaning. It could be a prefix or a suffix. It is also possible to add multiple affixes onto a word to expand it. For example, “antiestablishmentism” has the prefix “anti” and the suffixes “ment” and “ism.” The root word is “establish.” 

 

Allomorphs 

An allomorph is a variant of a morpheme that allows for a different pronunciation and spelling without changing the base meaning of the word. The best examples are the transition of “a” to “an” when paired with words starting with vowels, and the suffix “s” transitioning to “es” in words like “churches” and “bushes.” 

 

Zero-Morpheme 

Also known as null morphemes, are a type of morpheme that has no visible changes, usually, but changes meaning in some way. For example, “sheep” is the plural and singular form. These words require a determiner in front to make sure the meaning is clear. For instance, saying “a sheep” versus “some sheep.” 

 

Examples of Morphemes in Literature 

The Tyger by William Blake 

In this well-loved poem about God’s more dangerous and darker creations, the poet makes use of numerous morphemes that ensure the verse turned out as he wanted. Take a look at the following passage for examples of bound morphemes: 

Tyger Tyger, burning bright,

In the forests of the night;

What immortal hand or eye,

Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

Did he smile his work to see?

Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

“Burning,” “immortal,” and “fearful” are all bound morphemes. The latter is an inflectional morpheme, meaning that “fear,” a noun, has been transformed into “fearful” an adjective. The other two words, ‘burning” change with the addition of the suffix “ing” and “immortal” change with the addition of the prefix “im.” 

Read more poetry by William Blake.

 

Renascence by Edna St. Vincent Millay 

Millay’s ‘Renascence’ is one of her best-known poems. Take a look at the excerpt below for examples of bound and unbound, or free, morphemes.

All I could see from where I stood

Was three long mountains and a wood;

I turned and looked another way,

And saw three islands in a bay.

So with my eyes I traced the line 

Of the horizon, thin and fine,

Straight around till I was come

Back to where I’d started from; 

Some of the “free” morphemes include “and,” “from,” and “see.” Some of the bound morphemes include the “ed” in “turned” and  “looked.” 

Read more of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s poems.

 

Why Do Writers Use Morphemes? 

Morphemes are an incredibly important part of the English language, or more specifically, English morphology. The morpheme gives meaning to a word, whether it stands on its own or not. Depending on how the morpheme is used, writers are able to transform their text, adding complexity and interest to the language. 

 

Related Literary Terms 

  • Chiasmus: a rhetorical device that occurs when the grammatical structure of a previous phrase or clause is reversed or flipped.
  • Tmesis: a rhetorical device that involves inserting a word in between a compound word or phrase.
  • Figurative Language: figures of speech that are used in order to improve a piece of writing.
  • Metonymy: a kind of figurative language that refers to a situation in which one term is substituted for another.
  • Oxymoron: a kind of figurative language in which two contrasting things are connected together.
  • Amplification: a rhetorical device that’s used to improve a sentence or statement with additional information.

 

Other Resources 

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