Morphemes: Examples, Definition & Types

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  • 0:05 Definition of Morphemes
  • 0:43 Types of Morphemes
  • 1:31 A Morpheme as a Word
  • 2:27 A Morpheme as an Affix
  • 3:33 Examples
  • 3:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Gentry
The smallest recognized unit of meaning, morphemes function as the foundation of language. Explore this foundation through a full definition, discussion of types, and examples. Then, test your knowledge with a quiz.

Definition of Morphemes

As scientists have studied the composition of the universe, they've determined that the smallest unit for measuring an element is the atom. If you think of the periodic table of elements, atoms are what comprise elements, such as hydrogen, carbon, silver, gold, calcium, and so on. Scientists utilize this classification system for uniformity, so that they're on the same page in the terminology of their studies.

Similarly, linguists, or those who study language, have devised a category for the smallest unit of grammar: morphemes. Morphemes function as the foundation of language and syntax. Syntax is the arrangement of words and sentences to create meaning. We shouldn't confuse morphemes as only a given word, number of syllables, or only as a prefix or suffix. The term morpheme can apply to a variety of different situations. Let's take a look!

Types of Morphemes

In linguistics, we would further classify morphemes either as phonemes (the smallest units of grammar recognizable by sound) or graphemes (the smallest units of written language). For our purposes, we will focus on graphemes.

Let's examine the word nonperishable, analyze it, and then discuss terms associated with it.

Nonperishable is comprised of three morphemes: non-, perish, and -able. It actually has five syllables though, which is a good example of why morphemes and syllables are not synonymous.

  • non- is an example of a prefix, or a morpheme that precedes a base morpheme
  • perish is an example of a base morpheme, as it gives the word its essential meaning
  • -able is an example of a suffix, or a morpheme that follows a base morpheme

Both non- and -able are examples of an affix, a morpheme attached prior to or following a base that cannot function independently as a word.

We can also take a look at this chart to see some examples of how morphemes work:

Morpheme Chart

A Morpheme as a Word

When we can take a morpheme independently and use it as a stand-alone word in a sentence, it is known as a base. As the chart indicated, these can be nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions, prepositions, or determiners. We also classify a morpheme that can function as a stand-alone word as free.

In the sentence:

The bird-like man hardly touched his food at dinner.

There are a total of twelve morphemes, and ten of the twelve are free:

  • the (article)
  • bird (noun)
  • like (adjective)
  • man (noun)
  • hard (adjective)
  • touch (verb)
  • his (determiner)
  • food (noun)
  • at (preposition)
  • dinner (noun)

The other two morphemes, -ed and -ly, are types of affixes, which brings us to our next topic.

A Morpheme as an Affix

An affix is a bound morpheme, which means that it is exclusively attached to a free morpheme for meaning. Prefixes and suffixes are the most common examples.

  • Common prefixes are : re-, sub-, trans-, in-, en-, ad-, dis-, con-, com-
  • Common suffixes are: -s, -es, -able, -ance, -ity, -less, -ly, -tion

Derivational morphemes can be either a suffix or a prefix, and they have the ability to transform either the function or the meaning of a word. An example would be adding the suffix -less to the noun meaning. The suffix then makes the word the opposite of itself, thus drastically changing meaning.

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