Words are units of sound, meaning, and grammar that human beings use to communicate everything from basic needs to intricate explanations about the solar system. Babies start using them around nine months of age. Most adults know tens of thousands of them. We keep our words neatly classified and organized in our lexicon (mental dictionary) for easy access (word retrieval). Words can be respresented orthographically, i.e., written form, and phonteically, i.e., spoken form.
A word is an independent unit of language that communicates a thought or idea that can be used in a phrase, such as “The sun is shining,” or in isolation, “Look!”
Words are composed of semantic, syntactic, morphological, and phonological properties and must:
- have meaning
- refer to an entity in the universe
- be constructed according to the grammatical constraints of its language
Words can communicate concrete ideas. i.e., experienced with the senses, or those that are abstract, i.e., experienced in the mind or with emotions. Anomalous meaning is represented by words that may be somehow related to a referent in the universe, but do not exist in the real world, e.g., unicorn.
Parts of Speech
Words are classified according to how they function grammatically. There are seven basic parts of speech.
Noun – a person, place, thing, or idea
ex: Joanne, the professor, China, satellites, happiness
Pronoun –replaces a noun or noun phrase
ex: I, he, they, him, you
Adjective – modifies a noun or noun phrase and answers the questions: which one, what kind, or how many
ex: blue, thoughtful, several, angry
Verb – the action or state of being of the subject of the sentence
ex: to hit, to bring, to put, to be, to feel
Adverb – modifies a verb, adjective, or adverb and answers the questions: how, when, where, or to what extent
ex: tomorrow, gently, very, not
Preposition – shows a grammatical relationship between a noun and part of the sentence.
ex: to, at, in, on, of, for, out, and between.
Conjunction – joins two like words or phrases.
ex: and, but, or, if, and however.
Certain words may share phonological priorities but belong to different parts of speech. Consider the word ‘travels’ in the following sentences.
(1) Harriet travels to Paris each spring.
(2) Her travels keep her bank account empty.
In (1) ‘travels’ functions as a verb. It is the action that Harriet carries out each spring. In (2) ‘travels’ functions as a noun, the subject of the sentence. Interpreting meaning requires an understanding of the function of a word within the context of a phrase.
For practice in learning the parts of speech go to our morphology exercise Parts of Speech.
The function of words can also be classified in terms of whether they contribute lexical or semantic content to a sentence, or show the grammatical relationships between words.
Content words bring meaning to an utterance. Nouns, adjectives, adverbs and verbs fall under this category. The meaning of, ‘Superman hugged Batman’ is quite different from ‘Superman kicked Batman’. Or, ‘Harriet pulled into the driveway in a shiny Porsche’ as opposed to ‘Harriet pulled into the driveway in a rusty Porsche’.
Content words are also referred to as open-class words, since new words or neologisms added to a language will generally be a noun, adjective, adverb, or verb. Think of new words that have come into existence during your lifetime and you will see that they will always fall under one of these parts of speech. Here are a few examples:
Nouns – cell phone, lap top, iPod
Verbs – e-mail, google, text (someone), tweet (not like a bird)
Adjectives – ginormous, fantabulous, sick (meaning ‘great’)
Adverbs – way (This is way better than ……)
On the other hand, function words are those that show grammatical function such as prepositions, conjunctions, functional adverbs, auxiliary verbs, pronouns, and articles. These are referred to as closed-class, since new words will not be added to these categories. Think of the last time a new preposition was added to English!
All words are composed of one or more morphemes. A morpheme is defined as “a minimal meaningful unit.” Unlike words, they may be independent and communicate an idea (free), or dependent and contribute meaning or grammatical function to an idea (bound). Free morphemes can stand on their own as a complete thought or idea (word). These can be any part of speech. Each word in the following sentence is a free morpheme.
(4) The frog is very happy.
Bound morphemes must be attached to a root, or stem and can never stand alone. Each of the words in this sentence is composed of two morphemes.
(5) Fearful cats waited tentatively.
(Fear-ful cat-s wait-ed tentative-ly)
So now we see that a word can consist of one (monomorphemic) or more than one morphemes (polymorphemic). Monomorphemic (simple) words cannot be broken down into smaller units of meaning. For example, no sound can be taken away from the word ‘look’ without meaning being lost. Complex (polymorphemic) words can be broken down into smaller units of meaning. For instance, the addition of ‘-ed’ to ‘look’ creates the complex word ‘looked’.
The core component of a word is referred to as the root, which constitutes the basic meaning of that word. For example, the word ‘like’ is a root to which morphemes can be added. When we add the morpheme ‘-ly’ we form ‘likely’, now a stem to which other morphemes can be added, such as ‘un-’ (‘unlikely’).
A further classification of morphemes is one based on their function.
Derivational morphemes derive new meaning and/or change the part of speech. For example, the prefix ‘un-’, when attached to a verb or adjective, derives the opposite meaning.
(6) Adjective: healthy vs. unhealthy
Verb: tie vs. untie
They can also be used to derive one part of speech from another. By adding ‘-ible’ to the verb ‘reverse’ we derive the adjective ‘reversible.’
Inflectional morphemes do not alter meaning or part of speech; rather they show grammatical relationships between words, including mood, tense, person, voice, and aspect for verbs, and gender, number, and case for nouns. When adding the plural morpheme ‘-s’ to a noun, neither the meaning nor the word category change; instead, the resulting word is the plural of the root.
(7) singular noun + s = plural
satellite + s = satellites
For more on morphological processes, read our tutorial The Basics of Morphological Processes.
Languages permit the addition (coinage) of new words based on specific constraints or rules. In English, new words will be added to lexical or content categories (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs). Here are several word coinage processes.
Blends are formed when parts of two words are blended together such as brunch (breakfast + lunch), simulcast (simultaneous + broadcast), and camcorder (camera + recorder).
Back formations are derived when a syllable or sound is mistaken for an affix and is added to or omitted from a root. For example, the verb ‘to hawk’ was derived from the noun ‘hawker’ when the ‘er’ was mistaken for the agentive affix and removed.
Clipping is a process by which part of a word is used to represent the whole meaning.
Examples include: ‘fridge’ for ‘refrigerator,’ ‘phone’ for ‘telephone,’ and ‘Mac’ from ‘Macintosh.’
Eponyms are derived from a proper noun which has come to represent all like items. such as ‘kleenex’, ‘jello,’ ‘boycott’ and ‘ohm.’
Acronyms are formed by using the first letter from each word of a phrase to create a word. Examples include ‘scuba’ from Self-Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus and ‘SWAT’ from Special Weapons and Tactics.
Compound words are formed from two roots. Both roots can be free, as in the word ‘paperclip’, i.e., a type of ‘clip’ that holds ‘paper’. However certain roots are bound since they bear no meaning outside of the compound word in which they appear, e.g., ‘luke’ in ‘lukewarm’, ‘cran’ in ‘cranberry’.
Compounds can be joined as one word, (grandfather) separated by a hyphen (double-jointed), or separated by a space as two words (curve ball). Regardless of their orthographic representation, they are stored in the lexicon (mental dictionary) as one entry, not two.
There are many combinations of compound words:
a. adjective + adjective – ‘bittersweet’
b. adjective + noun – ‘grandmother’
c. noun + noun – ‘base ball’
d. noun + verb – ‘can opener’
e. preposition + noun – ‘outwit’
f. preposition + verb – ‘underscore’
g. verb + preposition – ‘push up’
h. adverb + verb – ‘downsize’
Languages can be classified based upon the morphological processes used in word/phrase formation.
Isolating languages (also called analytical languages) are made up of single morphemic words that do not incorporate affixes. For instance, in Mandarin Chinese, plurality is marked by the presence of a free morpheme that means ‘plural.’ Additionally, in isolating languages, parts of speech are often determined by word order. This makes sense since there are no grammatical affixes to mark, for example, a noun as a direct or indirect object. Isolating languages are most common in Southeast Asia and include Chinese and Vietnamese.
The next three language classifications are all examples of synthetic languages in which bound morphemes are added to other morphemes to derive words.
In agglutinating languages, morphemes are strung together to create complex words. Any number of morphemes can be added in this way. For speakers of these languages all morphemes bear a single meaning and are easily recognizable. Examples of agglutinating languages are Hungarian, Turkish, Filipino, Estonian, Finnish, and Dravidian languages.
Fusional languages are generally highly inflective. Words are formed by affixes attaching to stems, but unlike agglutinating languages, morpheme boundaries are not always clear as several morphems may be ‘fused’ together. A fusional affix can carry a single meaning or several, such as person, gender, and number. These languages often have very rich case declensions. Fusional languages include German, Russian, Latin, Polish, Semitic languages, and most all Proto-European languages.
Polysynthetic languages are characterized by incorporating stems and affixes that form nouns into verbal roots. These long and complex words correspond to complete thoughts, being equivalent to sentences in other languages. Polysynthetic languages are found all around the world including Siberia, the Americas, and Oceania. Many native-American languages are polysynthetic, including Chuckchi, Eskimo-Aleut languages, Salish languages, and Mayan languages.
The methodology involved in morphological analysis depends on the type of data. For example, you will approach an agglutinating language very differently from a polysynthetic language.
It is important to carefully examine the glosses so that you understand whether you are analyzing verbs, noun phrases, entire sentences, etc. This will guide you as to what you are actually for, i.e., verbal inflections, adjectives, number and person of nouns, etc. The first step is to make comparisons between forms that display repeated patterns. Then you can extract those morphemes to find root morphemes. Then look to see if these morphemes are used similarly with similar roots. If you come across a morpheme that has one phonetic form but two or more meanings, then they are probably different morphemes. This can be seen in English where ‘s’ can mean ‘plural’ (birds) or ‘third person singular’ (sings). When one meaning seems to be represented by several morphemes whose phonetic forms are very similar, these most likely will allomorphs, or different pronunciations of one morpheme, e.g., incompetent, inaudible, but illogical, irrational.
Most students enjoy morphological analysis. Have lots of paper and pencils handy and be very systematic in your approach and you’ll enjoy morphology, too.
1. Mithun, Marianne. 2009. Polysynthesis in the Arctic. Variations on Polysynthesis: The Eskimo-Aleut Languages. Marc-Antoine Mahieu and Nicole Tersis, eds. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 3-18.
2. Wojdak, Rachel. 2004. On the classification of Wakashan lexical suffixes. Paper presented at the 30th Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society.