What is Morphology in Linguistics? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:05 Linguistics
  • 1:01 Morphology
  • 1:45 Examples
  • 2:52 Bound Vs Free Morphemes
  • 4:24 Other Aspects of Morphology
  • 6:13 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Angela Janovsky

Angela has taught middle and high school English, Business English and Speech for nine years. She has a bachelor's degree in psychology and has earned her teaching license.

Learning about human language is often an overlooked educational subject. Read this lesson to discover the importance of morphology in our linguistic world.

Linguistics

What makes humans different from every other species on the planet? Answers vary from our use of tools, our creation of a society, or our advanced technological development. However, one essential factor underlies all the rest: the ability to communicate.

Humans are the only species that have a language. Sure, animals do communicate: Dolphins click messages through the water, wolves howl in packs, and deer flick their tails to warn of danger, and some apes can even learn sign language. However, none of these examples are even close to the advanced verbal communication found in humans.

This brings us to linguistics, or the study of language and its structure. Many scientists have devoted their lives to understanding how language developed, how it's currently changing, and what it might become in the future. There are many aspects of language to study, but today we focus on morphology.

Morphology

Morphology is the arrangement and relationships of the smallest meaningful units in a language. So what does this really mean? Every human language depends on sounds. When specific sounds are put together in a specific way, words, phrases, and finally sentences can be created. This is how messages are sent and received.

In order to understand morphology, you need to know the term morpheme, which is the smallest unit of a word with meaning. That meaning is how language conveys messages. Morphemes are more than just letters. When a number of letters are put together into a word part that now has meaning, then you have a morpheme. Morphology studies how these units of meaning, or word parts, can be arranged in a language.

Examples

Let's illustrate the role of morphemes through some examples. Look at the following list of words:

  • Firehouse
  • Doghouse
  • Bathroom
  • Chairlift

Each of these words has several phonemes, or distinct sounds. Firehouse begins with an -f sound and ends with the -s sound. However, those sounds alone don't have meaning. Breaking the first word into smaller parts shows the morphemes fire and house. These are morphemes as they contain inherent meaning. Fire means bright light, heat, and smoke, while house means a dwelling for human beings. Putting these together creates a completely new word.

The other examples in that list work the same way. Two morphemes, or meaningful elements, are put together in order to form a totally new word. Think of morphemes as the pieces that come together to build a language, just like the pieces of a house. You may have a bunch of pieces of wood (letters), but you don't get a wall (morphemes) until you start nailing them together. Then when all the walls are together, you finally have a complete house, or in language, a meaningful sentence.

Bound vs. Free Morphemes

An important aspect of morphology is how morphemes connect. This is where bound and free morphemes come in. A bound morpheme is one that must be attached to another morpheme in order to form a word. On the other hand, a free morpheme can stand as an independent word. Look at this list of words:

  • Runs
  • Joyous
  • Unsightly
  • Rerun

Each of these words has more than one morpheme; however, some of the morphemes are bound and some are free. Look at the first word. The base word is run, which is a morpheme, meaning moving faster than a walk. What about the -s then? It is more than a phoneme because it contains meaning. Attached to a verb, the -s indicates the third-person singular present tense. Even though it's just one letter, it has inherent meaning and so is a morpheme.

Now look at the second word. By now you should realize joy is a free morpheme, since it can stand alone and has meaning. The -ous is a suffix that changes the noun into an adjective. This means that -ous is also a bound morpheme. Remember, a suffix is a word part added to the end of a word. Prefixes, or word parts added to the beginning of words, are also morphemes. The final two words in this list contain the prefixes un- and re-, which are bound morphemes. All prefixes and suffixes are bound morphemes. Here are some more examples:

  • ed
  • or
  • pre
  • re
  • un
  • ly

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