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Spanish Verb Morphology

Lauren Porter

Colorado State University


All languages consist of phonemes, which are the distinct units of sound that are

heard in words. These units of sound are combined to express meaning and become

morphemes. Morphemes represent the minimal unit of meaning in language (Chisholm,

1981). However, different languages treat morphemes differently. This paper briefly

describes the the morphology of the English and Spanish languages, focusing on the verb

forms in each language. The main focus will be on Spanish verb morphology, with

English verb morphology touched upon as a familiar reference for readers. For the ease

of understanding the general concepts of this paper, the language and description will be

in reference to regular verbs, unless otherwise stated. The goal is not to create an

exhaustive list of the morphology of the verbs in both languages, but to provide clear

examples of English and Spanish verbs that can highlight some of the major differences

in the verb morphology of both languages. The overall question is, what are the

similarities and differences in Spanish and English verb morphology? Additionally, how

is verb morphology accomplished in Spanish?


It is important first to understand the morpheme as the most basic unit of meaning

in a word. Morphemes are classified depending on their type and location; the two types

of morphemes are content morphemes and function morphemes. Table 1 below shows the

types of morphemes. Content morphemes convey meaning, and can further be broken

down into free or bound morphemes, meaning they can act as a word on their own or act

as a root on their own. Function morphemes tell about relationships, and they are also

broken down into free and bound morphemes. Free function morphemes are function
words, such as prepositions, whereas bound functions are broken further down into

inflexional or derivational morphemes. Derivational morphemes convey tense or person


Table 1

Types of morphemes

Type Function Description/Example

Content Tell you Free Can stand alone as a

Morpheme about word (cat)

Bound Like a root-by itself

is not a word (phon)

Function Tell you Free Function Word Prepositions,

Morpheme about articles, conjunctions
relationships (of)

Bound Inflexional Doesnt change

word class/alter
meaning-mark a
verb for tense,
number, or case

Derivational Changes word class

or alters meaning

As Table 2 below shows, morphemes are classified by their location as either

roots or affixes. Roots can be free or bound, and act as the base of the word. Affixes are

further broken down into prefixes, infixes, suffixes, and circumfixes, depending on where

they are added to the root.

Table 2

Location of morphemes

Type Name/Location/Example

Root Base (state)

Affix Prefix- before root (re)


Affix-after root (ment)

*rare or non-existent in English

In a broad sense, what do morphemes have the potential to describe? Morphemes

can indicate:


Person (who)

Tense (when)


Aspect (time flow)

Mood/degree of certainty

Gender (physical or grammatical)

Noun class (animate or inanimate)


Case (subject v. object, etc.)

Direction/spatial relation

The goal of morphology, or the study of morphemes, is to describe word structure

and the patterns of word formation in a language (Hamawand, 2011). Through

morphological typology, languages can be classified as analytic or synthetic, based on

how they treat morphemes. Analytic languages, such as Mandarin Chinese, have no

internal word structure, and are made up of free morphemes; in short, they do not have

morphology. On the other hand, synthetic languages, such as Hungarian, all have some

level of internal structure, and are categorized as isolating, agglutinating, and fusional.

It is more accurate to describe languages on a continuum of indexes that refer to

their treatment of fusion and synthesis. On the index of fusion there are isolating,

agglutinating, and fusional languages. This index describes how easy it is to find a

morpheme boundary; with isolating languages one word can be one morpheme,

agglutinating languages have fairly clear boundaries, and fusional languages are the most

complex as there is less clarity with each morpheme boundary and there can be multiple

meanings per morpheme. On the index of synthesis there are analytic, synthetic, and

polysynthetic languages. On one side, analytic languages, as mentioned, do not really

have morphology, meaning each morpheme is a word. In synthetic languages, there is one

content morpheme and other morphemes, and in polysynthetic languages, there can be

more than one content morpheme per word, meaning one word could be one sentence.

English is an isolating, synthetic language, meaning one word could be a morpheme, but

also that there are content morphemes and other morphemes. On the other hand, as a

fusional and synthetic language, Spanish has a more complex morphology.


Spanish morphology versus English morphology

Given that morphemes can describe so many different things, and there are many

different ways to treat morphemes, it is not a surprise that English and Spanish

morphology is very different. In English, verbs can tell number, tense, and aspect.

Spanish verbs can tell much more: person, number, tense, aspect, probability, and mood

(Montrul, 2004).

Spanish has a much more complicated morphology than English in that verbs can

be inflected for: aspect, tense, mood, probability (the subjunctive), person, and number

(Serpa, 2005). Unlike English, the Spanish verbs themselves are changed to reflect the

changes. Sometimes this is true in English, but overall English does not have as many

morphological changes to the verbs, merely to pronouns, auxiliary verbs, etc. In Spanish,

there are 46-47 verb forms, whereas English only has 4 or 5 (Serpa, 2005).

English verb morphology

English verbs will be described first in order that the complexity of their Spanish

counterparts in comparison can further be understood in the preceding pages of this

paper. English verbs can describe number, tense, and aspect. The most important use of

tense is to differentiate past and present time (Palmer, 1988). Tense is the expression of

an event relative to the time that the verb is being spoken. Aspect is different in that it

describes the duration or completion of an event, relative to a different point of reference.

English present-tense, regular verbs show number with the inflectional morpheme

s, added as a suffix to the verb. Table 3, below, is an example with the regular verb

walk. In present tense verbs, -s indicates the third person singular form of the verb.
Note that in English, a subject pronoun is necessary in order to clarify who did the action,

because the morphology of the verb stays the same in most cases; this demonstrates how

English is an isolating language. However, when the verb stays in the same form for most

of the conjugations, it only indicates present tense. It cannot indicate number (who) as


Table 3

Walk: present tense

Person Verb

I Walk

You Walk

He/She Walks

They Walk

We Walk

The simple past-tense of regular English verbs is created with the inflectional

morphemes ed or t. These are added as a suffix (an affix morpheme added at the end)

of the verb. Table 4 below is an example of the verb describing tense. Table 4 uses the

same verb, walk, which uses the ed suffix, to demonstrate this. Again, it is important

to notice that the subject pronoun is necessary to clarify who did the action; the verb

morphology for all pronouns in this case is the same so the verb itself cannot tell who did

the action.

Table 4

Walk: simple past tense

Person Verb

I Walked

You Walked

He/She Walked

They Walked

We Walked

There are many aspects that an English verb can describe, including: present

perfect, past perfect, present progressive (present continuous), and present perfect

(progressive continuous). For some of these cases, the inflectional morpheme ed is

added. In the progressive tenses, the inflectional morpheme ing is added. However,

when describing aspect, the verb needs an auxiliary verb to make complete the meaning.

This paper will not include an exhaustive list, but merely provide examples in order to be

compared to Spanish verbs. Table 5 below provides examples of aspect/tense with the

verb walk.

Table 5

Walk: aspect/tense

Aspect/Tense Person Aux+ Verb

Present Perfect I/You/He She/They/We Have/have/has/have/have

+ Walked

Past Perfect I/You/He She/They/We Had/had/had/had/had

+ Walked

Present Progressive I/You/He She/They/We Am/are/is/are/are

(Continuous) + Walking

Present Perfect Progressive I/You/He She/They/We Have/have/has/have/have

(Continuous) + Been
+ Walking

Spanish verb morphology

Now that a basis of understanding for English verb morphology has been set, it is

pertinent to look closer at Spanish verbs. As mentioned above, Spanish verbs indicate

person, number, tense, aspect, probability, and mood (Montrul, 2004). The following two

figures were taken from (Montrol, 2004, p. 89) and are good visuals to help understand

Spanish verb morphology. Figure 1 Example 1A is the basic equation for the verb

conjugation, and Example 1B is an example with the verb cantar, which means to

(1A) [root+thematic vowel]stem+suffix1(tense/aspect/mood)+suffix 2(person/number)

(IB) [cant+a] + ba +mos =cantabamos

sing + past imperfect indicative + first person plural

As the example above shows, because of Spanishs treatment of morphology, one

is able to understand the tense, aspect or mood, and the person or number based on one

conjugation. In English, the equivalent is not true.

Additionally, all Spanish verbs are categorized into three classes: -ar, -ir, and er

verbs. These are dependent on the thematic vowel of the infinitive ending of the verb

(Montrul, 2004). For example, caminar (to walk) is an ar verb, vivir (to live) is an ir

verb, and tener (to have) is an er verb. For regular verbs, the way in which a verb is

conjugated is dependent on the thematic vowel. In Spanish, 80% of verbs are

ar verbs (Brodsky, 2005).

Below, in Table 6, is an example of the verb caminar (to walk), in its present tense

form. As the example shows, in each conjugation of a Spanish verb, there are six possible

forms (Mackenzie, 2001). Note that the changes made to the verb, via the change in

suffix, denote the number and person. This is an example of how Spanish is a fusional

language; the single morphemes on the verbs give two meanings. In English, a subject

pronoun is required to clarify. However, in Spanish, the subject pronoun may only be

needed to clarify for emphasis, depending on the context, or to describe if the third

person is male or female (l, ella) respectively, or if the group is all female

(nosotras/vosotras/ellas), or if the context is informal or formal (t or usted, ellos or

Table 6

Caminar: present tense

Person Verb

I (Yo) Camino

You (T)/Usted Caminas

He/She (l/Ella) Camina/Camina

We (Nosotros/Nosotras) Caminamos/Caminamos

They (familiar) (Vosotros/Vosotras) Caminis/Caminis

They (Ellos/Ellas/Ustedes) Caminan

Moods that a Spanish verb can indicate are the imperative, indicative, or

subjunctive mood (Lewis & Chavez, 1940). The imperative is equal to a command in

English. The indicative mood is similar to all English modes of describing past or present

tenses, or present or past continuous aspects. However, the subjunctive is a mood that

Spanish verbs describe that is rarely used in English. Additionally, the subjunctive mood

can be expressed in five different aspects/tenses, which increases the number of

conjugations and combinations of verb morphology. The subjunctive mood is, from the

point of view of the speaker, the grammatical expression of a probability, obligation, or

necessity of what is stated (Montrul, 2004). In other words, the subjunctive is used to

express feelings of doubt, uncertainty, or subjectivity; it is basically used to express

everything except certainty and objectivity.

To further complicate Spanish morphology, Spanish has irregular verbs just as

English does. An irregular verb, in both languages, is associated as such because it

undergoes a stem (root) change. There are other irregular verb types, such as ir (to go)

in Spanish, but those will not be addressed in this paper. In English, the affix can be

useful to define regularity. However, in Spanish this is not the case. Many of the irregular

Spanish verbs still take the same affix as the regular ones (Bowden et al. , 2010).

So far, there have been specific examples of verb morphology in both English and

Spanish. However, to fully demonstrate the complexity of the Spanish verb conjugations

themselves, Table 7 below will demonstrate verb conjugations in a variety of tenses

simply for the yo (I) form of the verb caminar (to walk). Note the following, which

further complicates the morphology: for each of these examples, there are five other

conjugations for the five other number/person denotations, for each tense. Also, not all

tenses will be represented in this table; this is an ar verb, and conjugations are different

for the er and ir classified verbs. Additionally, Spanish also uses the verb haber,

which acts similarly to have in English. However, in English, if have, has, or had

is used, the verb conjugation stays the same. For example, I have walked/I had

walked/He has walked, etc. However, note that in Spanish, a conjugated form of haber

+ a conjugated verb is used.

Table 7

Caminar: different tenses

Tense Mood Spanish Verb English Translation


Present Indicative camino I walk

Past (Imperfect) Indicative caminaba I used to walk

Past (Preterit) Indicative camin I walked

Future Indicative caminar I will walk

Conditional Indicative caminara I would/should walk

Present Subjunctive camine (That I may) walk

Past (Imperfect) Subjunctive caminara (That I might) walk

Future Subjunctive caminare (That I might

someday walk)

Perfect Indicative he caminado I have walked

Pluperfect Indicative haba caminado I had walked

Perfect Subjunctive haya caminado (That I may) have



Language begins with phonemes, but the meaning, and therefore understanding,

of language begins with morphemes. In its practical application, understanding that

morphology differences exist between languages can promote understanding that literal

translations do not exist. Though an exhaustive list has not been given, this paper has

explored different aspects of English and Spanish verb morphology in order to

demonstrate the complexity of the Spanish morphology system compared to that of

English. Additionally, as is the case with Spanish, this difference in morphology may

require extensive memorization of verb conjugations and forms on behalf of a L1 English

learner acquiring Spanish.



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a frequency effects study examining storage versus composition. Language

Learning, 60 (1), 44-87. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.



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Chisholm, W.S. (1981). Elements of English linguistics. New York, NY: Longman.

Hamawand, Z. (2011). Morphology in English: Word formation in cognitive grammar.

New York, NY: Continuum International Publishing Group.

Lewis, W.N., & Chavez, T.H. (1940). Spanish verb key. Dallas: Banks Upshaw and


Mackenzie, I. (2003). A linguistic introduction to Spanish. Muenchen: LINCOM.

Montrul, S. (2004). The acquisition of Spanish: Morphosyntactic development in

monolingual and bilingual L1 acquisition and adult L2 acquisition.

Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Palmer, F.R. (1988). The English verb (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Longman.

Serpa, M. (2005). ELL assessment for linguistic differences vs. learning disabilities:
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