Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Breaking words down in more than one way

There are some cases in which morphemes can be ambiguous.

Take the following word:


The more familiar meaning is "formed into a union". The other, less commonly known meaning comes from chemistry: "not converted into ions"; it's actually the word ionized with the un- prefix. This is an example of a homograph, as the words can have two pronunciations and different meanings altogether but are spelled the same.

The root words are different: in the first case, it's union, and in the second case it's ion. Here's the morpheme breakdown of both meanings of unionized:


union : root word
-ize : changes a noun into a verb (union -> unionize)
-ed : past tense (unionize -> unionized)


ion : root word
-ize : changes a noun into a verb (ion -> ionize)
un- : "not"
(ionize -> unionize)
-ed : past tense (unionize -> unionized)

In the second case, notice that the order matters: the un- prefix is applied after -ize, as there isn't a word such as "un-ion".

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

More on morphemes, or meaningful word elements

In the previous post we discussed morphemes, which are the meaningful parts of a word. An interesting fact about these word elements is that the number of morphemes contained in a word is completely independent of the number of syllables in the word.

Here are some two or more syllable words with just one morpheme:


The above words are polysyllabic but they cannot be broken down into any more meaningful parts. It can get a bit tricky determining what is and isn't a morpheme, such as the -er in corner not being a suffix.

Here are some one syllable words with more than one morpheme:


The above monosyllabic words contain more than one meaningful element. Some of these form their past tense or plurals irregularly as there is no distinguishable suffix added, even though there is more than one morpheme present.

Examining the number of morphemes in a word

Let's examine the morphemes in the word untruthfully:

true root word
-th changes adjective into noun
-ful changes noun into adjective
-ly changes adjective into adverb
un- 'not'

There are a total of 5 morphemes in untruthfully: 1 for the root word, 3 suffixes, and 1 prefix.

In general, the root word is a free morpheme; it can be used on its own. The prefixes and suffixes are usually bound morphemes as they must be attached to the root word. In colloquial speech, there are some cases in which bound morphemes can be used alone (which will be a topic covered in the future).

Words with the greatest number of morphemes in English

Words with 4 - 5 morphemes can be quite common:

uncontrollably: 4 ( root word + 1 prefix + 2 suffixes)
recolonizations: 5 (root word + 1 prefix + 3 suffixes)

Antidisestablishmentarianism, commonly thought of as the longest English word, only has 6 (root word + 2 prefixes + 3 suffixes). Can you find any English words containing more morphemes in just one word? Remember that it is not necessarily just the longest word in terms of total number of letters.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The meaningful elements of a word

The study of word structure and formation is called morphology, and the meaningful parts of a word are known as morphemes. Most of the time in English they are represented by prefixes and/or suffixes. Other languages have infixes (insertion in the middle of a word) and circumfixes (added surrounding a word).

The word toys has two meaningful parts, toy and -s. The -s in this case denotes "plural", modifying the root word toy.
In contrast, the word orange has just one meaningful element (the word orange itself). It would not make sense to break it down further into, say, o + range.

There are 2 kinds of morphemes: free and bound.

Free morphemes can stand alone and have meaning independently.
Bound morphemes must be attached to a free morpheme, they cannot be used by themselves! For instance, you can't just go around saying "-s" to mean "plural".

What is the purpose of morphemes?

Morphemes can derive other words by changing their part of speech. The suffix -ful turns a noun into an adjective. The suffix -ly changes an adjective into an adverb.

Morphemes can also change the meaning of a word, like the prefix un- to mean not. The suffix -ed often represents the past tense when attached to a verb. Obviously, there are exceptions in the case of irregular verbs. The suffix -s can represent either plural when attached to a noun, or denotes third person singular when attached to a verb.