This tutorial will introduce you to the basic concept of how a certain class of words are constructed in Standard English.
What is a Morpheme?
A morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning. It can be expressed in three different ways: as a word, whether monosyllabic, e.g., coat, love, or polysyllabic, e.g., pillow, avocado, as a syllable, e.g., un- as in unforgiving, or re- as in refocus, or sound segment, e.g., -s as in apples, or –th as in width.
Principle of Compositionality
The meaning of a simple or complex expression is fully determined by the meaning of its constituents and its structure. In other words, the parts equal the whole. Thus words generally can be understood as a root meaning + additional morphemes required to communicate a concept. For example, the root run means to move one’s body quickly across a surface. By attaching –er to the root, we now have a morphologically complex word that refers to the person who move his/her body quickly across a surface.
Productivity is the notion that a given morpheme has a high frequency of usage to the extent that its meaning is clear even when not attached to a root, or when attached to an unlikely or novel root. This gives speakers the possibility to accurately recognize forms we’ve never heard before. For example, we are more likely to derive a noun from an adjective using –ness rather than –th. Take the new adjective lit, which means exciting, crazy, or amazing and attach –ness to form litness, and despite the fact that the latter is not an officially recognized lexical item, the understanding would be clear, even if a bit awkward. However, a combination of lit + –th, would not be understood.
Not only are some morphemes more productive than others, but languages also adhere to language specific constraints that restrict, which affixes can attach to various parts of speech.
Word composition must not only adhere to language specific constraints as to which morphemes may be attached to a word (meaning + part of speech) but must also adhere to the order in which they are attached – this is referred to as the hierarchy of compositionality. Word trees allow us to diagram the structure of the word as a systematic process by which meaning is composed. They show the number of morphemes, and the order in which they attach to one another.
Take a look…
How can we determine the process by which the word disappearance is constructed? These are the steps:
- Locate the root: appear
- List words that have the prefix dis-, and we list words that have the suffix –ance.
*Note: This can only be done with words composed of 2 or more morphemes (one prefix + root, root + suffix). Morphemes must belong unambiguously to one part of speech. Let’s look at the pattern in Table 2:
- State the rules:
We see that dis- attaches to verbs, and does not change the part of speech:
appear – disappear
–ance attaches to verbs, and does change part of speech:
appear – disappear
- Starting with the root, add one affix at a time, noting the resulting part of speech. This construction referred to as unambiguous since there is only one possible order by which the word may be formed. Now take a look at the word unlockable. Following the steps above results in two possible constructions.
- Locate the root: lock (as a verb) List words that have the prefix un-, and those that have the suffix –able.
- un– attaches to adjectives and a few restricted verbs and does not change the part of speech. –able attaches to verbs to derive adjectives. We see that un- attaches to verbs, and does not change the part of speech:
lock – unlock
–able attaches to verbs, and does change part of speechlock – lockable
- State the rules:
So both constructions are grammatical. What does this mean? It means that each structure yields a different meaning. Think about it. In figure 2, example a. unlock means to open an item that is locked. Unlockable thus means the item is able to be unlocked. In b., lockable means that an item may be locked if necessary. Unlockable means it cannot be locked if necessary!
This is construction referred to as ambiguous since there are two possible orders by which the word is formed, each resulting in a different meaning.
You may have to read this section over a few times to wrap your brain around this concept.
For practice on word construction, go to our Morphology: Word Compositionality 1.1.
R. Aronow, K. Bannar