Morphology of English: Definition & Studies

Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

Morphology is the study of parts of language and how we use these parts to form words. In this lesson you'll find out the building blocks of language and how to use these blocks to construct words and deconstruct sentences. A short quiz follows.

Morphology of English

Morphology may be one of the best words in the English language. Aside from sounding like a superpower or making an excellent album title for a band, it is also a vital aspect of understanding language. From a linguistics perspective we can define morphology as the study of a language's parts and how those parts interact. Though this lesson is only concerned with the morphology of the English language, every language which can be broken down into components can be studied by morphology.

To examine morphology of English, we need to first understand the components of a word. When we look at the smallest grammatical unit in English we are talking about a morpheme. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of language, making it different from a word. This is a hard concept to wrap your brain around, so let's use some examples to make it a little more obvious. Take the word 'reusable'. We can understand that this word means something that is repeatable or can be used again. However, we can break the word down into three distinct morphemes. For example, the prefix re- essentially means repeatable, -use-is an action meaning to engage or employ something, and the suffix -able means 'capable of.' This is the furthest we can break down this word with each component still being meaningful.

Types of Morphemes

Morphemes come in two distinct forms: free and bound. A free morpheme is one which can function independently as a word. An example of this is the word 'plant,' which cannot be broken down into any smaller part. An -ant is a thing, but that only leaves us with pl- which can't stand as a morpheme by itself, so you can't break it down.

A bound morpheme is one which has to be attached onto another morpheme or a word. In short, it can't be independent. Using 'plant' as an example again, we can pluralize it and make it 'plants.' Now we can add -ed to the end and make the word 'planted.' However -ed isn't a word by itself (other than as a proper noun in the shortened name Ed, but that doesn't count). So we say 'plant' is a free morpheme but '-ed' is a bound morpheme.

To complicate matters further, you can break down bound morphemes into two more categories. The first we call derivational morphemes, which are morphemes that alter the word's function as a part of speech. Don't worry, it's not as complicated as that sounds. Take the word 'kind,' which is a noun, and add the bound morpheme -ly and you get 'kindly,' an adjective. See? All the morpheme did was change it from a noun to adjective. That wasn't so bad.

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