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Words are signs but so are certain parts of words and also larger units, like phrases and classes. In fact, any coherent meaning represented by a discrete signal or sound or writing is a sign, no matter how small or large. Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address” is a sign, as are the “Book of Genesis”, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, and the Encyclopaedia Britannica. In studying vocabulary, however, we are not concerned with large, complex signs like these, but rather with two types of signs that are both basic, although basic in different ways, namely, the morpheme and the idiom. Leaving the idiom aside, let us look at the morpheme, which is usually defined as the smallest meaningful unit of language – a language sign (that is, an association of sound and meaning) that cannot be divided into smaller signs. In other words, the morpheme may be said to be “a minimum correlation between sound and sense.”

Leonard Bloomfield defines the morpheme as “a linguistic form which bears no partial phonetic-semantic resemblance to any other form.” Thus, ‘bird’, ‘play’, ‘dance’ ‘-y’,              ‘-ing’ are morphemes. Morphemes may show partial phonetic resemblances, as do, for instance, ‘bird’, ‘burr’ or even homonymy, as do ‘pair’, ‘pair’, pare’. But this resemblance is purely phonetic and is not paralleled by meaning.

The meaning of a morpheme is a sememe. The linguist assumes that each sememe is a constant and definite unit of meaning, different from all other meanings, including all other sememes, in the language, but he cannot go beyond this. There is nothing in the structure of morphemes like ‘wolf’, ‘fox’ and ‘dog’ to tell us the relation between their meanings; this is a problem for the zoologist. The zoologist’s definition of these meanings is welcome to us as a practical help, but it cannot be confirmed or rejected on the basis of our science.

The word ‘mahogany’ cannot be divided into any meaningful parts. We could, of course, divide its sounds into ‘ma-‘ and ‘-hogany’ or into ‘mahoga-‘ and ‘ny’, but the parts would have no meaning themselves. Since ‘mahogany’ cannot be divided into smaller meaningful parts, it s a word made up of one morpheme. On the other hand, the word ‘girls’ can easily be divided into ‘girl’ and ‘-s’ meaning ‘more than one. Thus ‘girls’, although a single word, is made up of two morphemes.

Morphemes are of various lengths. Some, like ‘girl’ are exactly one syllable long. Others, like ‘-s’ are smaller than a syllable. Still others, like ‘mahogany’ are several syllables long. We cannot tell from the length of a word how many morphemes it ahs in it. Since a word is a composite of sound and meaning, it will have as many morphemes as it has parts that are themselves composites. Thus, ‘unlawfully’ is a word of four morphemes because the pronunciation represented by its spelling and the meaning ‘in a manner not confirming to law’ can be divided together into exactly four parts: ‘-ly’ (in a manner), ‘un-‘ (not), ‘-ful’ (confirming to) and ‘law’ (law). At first glance, we might suppose that ‘mandate’ could be divided into two morphemes, ‘man’ and ‘date’. A moments’ reflection, however, will tell us that although the sound ‘mandate’ could be divided into two parts, the meaning cannot, and therefore, the resemblance between the pronunciation of ‘mandate’ and that of ‘ma’ and ‘date’ is a coincidence. Since the meanings are quite different, the three items, ‘man’, ‘date’ and ‘mandate’, are unrelated to one another. (Note: ‘Mandate’ can be divided, but its parts are ‘mand-‘ and ‘-ate’. The ‘mand-‘ part is to be seen also in ‘remand’, ‘command’, ‘demand’, ‘countermand’ and is used as independent word by psychologists, like B.F. Skinner who uses it in his book entitled Verbal Behaviour. The ‘-ate’ part is a fairly common morpheme found, for example, in ‘participate’).

Morphemes can be classified into bases and affixes (prefix, infix and suffix). A base is a morpheme that stands alone as a word or to which other morphemes are added to make a word. Thus, ‘mahogany’, ‘girl’ and ‘law’ are bases. Affixes can be added before a base, in which case they are called prefixes, or after a base, in which case they are called suffixes, or in the middle, in which case they are called infixes.

All affixes are, of course, bound morphemes, since they rarely form words by themselves, but bases can be either bound or free. The bases that we have seen so far have all been free, but bound ones are also fairly common. For example, the word, ‘unkempt’ has a prefix (‘un-’), which is the same affix as in ‘unlawfully’. However, taking off ‘un-’ leaves ‘kempt’ as the base. Since ‘kempt’ never occurs alone as a word, it is a bound base. In fact, the only time it occurs is with ‘un-’ before it, so it is not just bound but uniquely bound. Historically, ‘kempt’ is a variant of the word ‘combed’. In present day English, however, we use ‘unkempt’ to refer to any disarray of person, dress or manner, and thus we have lost sight of the etymological meaning of the word. It is always a little hard to pin down the meaning of bound bases, but presumably nowadays, ‘kempt’ means whatever characteristic of someone who is not unkempt. Other bound bases can be seen in ‘feckless’ and ‘inept’

The distinction between base and affix and between free and bound morphemes is not an absolute one. Because language is constantly changing, a particular morpheme may be transformed from a base to an affix or from a bound unit to a free one. The suffix ‘-ly’, which is historically related to the word ‘like’, was once itself an independent word, but now is a pure suffix. The item ‘-man’, pronounced /mƏn/ in ‘postman’, ‘policeman’ or ‘Englishman’, is following the same path but has not yet developed so far. Most English speakers probably still think of it as a variation of the base morpheme ‘man’, but its altered pronunciation and special use are indications that it is on the way to becoming an affix distinct from the noun that is its origin. The opposite process, in which morphemes that were bound affixes become free bases, is also observable. The prefix ‘ex-‘ in ‘ex-wife’ and ‘ex-husband’ is now used informally as a word meaning ‘ex-spouse’, as in “My ex and I get along now.” A similar independence has been conferred on the bound items ‘-ism’ and ‘-ology’.

Thus a morpheme is a formal sign. It has a phonetic shape; it has a meaning and its own grammatical form. It plays a syntactic role in the construction of larger units. But yet difficulties of morpheme identification arise, especially when we deal with the plural form (–s) in English. The plural form in English, even when written with an ‘-s’, has three phonological shapes. The variants in this case are explained as allomorphs. For example, /Iz/ as in ‘house’; /z/ as in ‘dogs’ and /s/ as in ‘cats’. The examples show that /Iz/ appears after all sibilants and affricates (‘glasses’, ‘dishes’, ‘garages’); /z/ appears after all voiced phonemes (‘saws’, ‘ribs’), and /s/ after all voiceless phonemes (‘books’, ‘cooks’).

There is a very similar situation with the past tense as in ‘liked’, ‘loved’ and ‘hated’ respectively./t/, /d/, and /Id/. Alternants of this kind are called by Bloomfield ‘phonetic alternants’, because they can be described in terms of phonetic modification. Later linguists, however, used the term ‘allomorphs’ or simply ‘morphs’ to designate alternants, preferring the term ‘morpheme’ for the whole class of alternants. Thus, the plural morpheme could be said to have three allomorphs: /s/, /z/ and /Iz/. This kind of alternation, moreover, was described by them as ‘phonologically determined alternation’, since it is determined by the phonological characteristics of the environment. Thus we no longer say that morphemes consists of phonemes, but, rather, that the allomorphs or alternants consist of phonemes.

Sometimes these alternants are irregular:

For example,
knife /f/           knives /v/
wife/f/             wives /v/
mouth /θ/         mouths /δ/
house /s/          houses /Iz/

They are irregular because the final consonant is voiceless in the singular and voiced in the plural form. This does not, however, occur with most other words that end in the same consonants:

For example,
myth /θ/           myths /θs/
Cease /s/          ceases /s/

The plural of ‘ox’ is ‘oxen’. It is neither irregular nor, in any way, conditioned by the environment. Later linguists refer to this kind of alternation as morphologically conditioned alternation. It is conditioned by the occurrence of a particular preceding morpheme and not by any phonological feature.

Morphemes, besides being contrastive in a semantic way, are also contrastive in a formal and grammatical way; for example, the difference between ‘way’ and ‘ways’ or between ‘talked’ and ‘talks’ is a formal and grammatical contrast.

The difference between ‘talks’ and ‘talked’ is that one denotes the present tense and the other past tense. The morphemes ‘-s’ and ‘-ed’ indicate the contrast. But what about the contrast ‘ways’ and ‘ways’ and between ‘talk’ and ‘talked’? With these words, the contrast is indicated by ‘-s’ and ‘-ed’, on the one hand, and by the absence of any allomorph on the other. The question arises: ‘Can anything be contrasted with nothing?’ Some linguists say that it can. Such linguists have invented and they use the idea of what is called a ‘zero allomorph’ to avoid the difficulty.

Now again, the problem arises with some plurals of nouns in English. A large number of nouns have their plurals by the addition of the allomorph, represented by ‘-s’ in graphic substance, to the singular form. This means that the singular form, which is contrastive with the plural, has a ‘zero allomorph’. But what about words such as ‘sheep’, ‘deer’ and ‘cattle’?

For example, ‘The sheep1 is grazing.’ and ‘The sheep2 are grazing.’ are contrastive both semantically and grammatically. If we say that we can establish a contrast between sheep1 and sheep2 in the same sort of way as we can establish a contrast between ‘way’ and ‘ways’, we will have to answer the question, ‘What is it that it contrasts with ?’ The question seems unanswerable unless we assume that the opposition between sheep1 and sheep2 shows a contrast of two allomorphs, which are both different. In such a situation it is only the context and association that help us.

The converse of the zero allomorph is what Charles Hockett has called the ‘empty morph’. Sometimes we find some phonological material that seems to belong to no morpheme at all. The plural form of ‘child’ is ‘children’. It is quite reasonable to identify the ‘-en’ with the ‘-en’ of ‘oxen’. What then can we say of the ‘-r-‘? It is an empty morph, since it belongs to no morpheme at all.

Words like ‘geese’, ‘men’, ‘knew’ and ‘took’ are called ‘substitutional alternants’ (Bloomfield) for words like ‘goose’, ‘man’, ‘know’ and ‘take.’ The substitution of ‘ee’ in ‘geese’, ‘e’ in ‘men’ for ‘oo’ in ‘goose’ and ‘a’ in ‘man’ is an instance of the alternants of the usual plural suffix. ‘Take’ becomes ‘took’, that is ‘a’ is changed into ‘oo’.

‘Took’, according to Charles Hoclett, is a portmanteau morph – one that belongs simultaneously to two morphs: ‘take’ and ‘-ed’. ‘Take’ has one morph, but ‘took’ has two: ‘took’ an allomorph of ‘take’ and zero (φ) which is an allomorph of ‘-ed’