The word is the basic building block of language: traditional grammars of English used to take words as the smallest unit of their analysis. Modern linguistics recognises that words can be divided up into smaller units called morphemes.
The words that can stand alone without any attachments (for example, break) are called free morphemes.
The attachments that cannot stand alone (for example, un-) are called bound morphemes.
There are two kinds of bound morpheme.
Albert worked at home and illustrated books.
In the sentence above, the words worked, illustrated, and books all show the process of inflection. The attachments -ed and -s are called inflections or inflectional morphemes. They add extra information to the word without fundamentally changing it.
In the case of -ed on worked and illustrated, the inflection tells us that the action is in the past tense. In the case of -s on books, it tells us about number - that there is more than one book.
Margaret was unhappy about Sooty's disappearance.
In the sentence above, the words unhappy and disappearance illustrate the process of derivation. The attachments un-, dis- and -ance are all derivational morphemes.
Derivational morphemes can change the meaning of a word. happy -> unhappy appear -> disappear
Derivational morphemes can change word classes. disappear (verb) -> disappearance (noun)
It is usually quite easy to tell the difference between inflection and derivation. A rough rule of thumb is that an inflection always comes at the end of a word.
It seems that derivational morphemes are more firmly attached to their stems than inflectional ones. We can see how inflectional morphemes can cause problems when people make slips of the tongue.
We can also see it in problem cases with compound words.
Morphemes are not the same as syllables, although morpheme boundaries and syllable boundaries often coincide, as in slow+ly.
A morpheme is the smallest element of meaning in a word. Elephant is one morpheme, elephants is two; neighbour is one morpheme, neighbourhood is two.
|The book + s were||un + read||+able.|
Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.
Published on: 25 Feb 2009