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Morphemes: the smallest units of

meaning
Introduction
It was said that Morphology is the study
of word structure (Katamba, 1993). One
may ask if words do have structure
because normally speakers think of
words as indivisible units of meaning
(that cannot be divided up into smaller
elements).

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Morphemes: the smallest units of
meaning
Why speakers think of words as indivisible units of
meaning?
This is due to the fact that many words are
morphologically simple. For example, eat, the, in, free,
do, mosquito, etc.
these words cannot be segmented or divided up into
smaller units that are themselves meaningful because
if, for example, we divide up the word eat [i:t] into its
smallest units, the resulting units would be [i:] and [t]
which would be impossible to say what each of the
sounds [i:] and [t] means by itself since sounds in
themselves do not have meaning.

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Morphemes: the smallest units of
meaning
Furthermore, it is impossible to say what the
quito part of mosquito or the erce part of
fierce means (Katamba, 1993:20).
Thats probably the reason why speakers think
of words as indivisible why should one call
structure where there are no elements (units)
to be analysed?

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Morphemes: the smallest units of
meaning
However, many English words are
morphologically complex.
It means that they can be divided up into smaller
units that are themselves meaningful.
This is true of words like desks (desk s) and
boots (boot s), for instance, where desk refers
to one piece of furniture and boot refers to one
item of footwear, while in both cases the s
serves the grammatical function of indicating
plurality (Katamba, 1993: 20).
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What is a morpheme?
Morpheme is the smallest, indivisible unit of
semantic content or grammatical function
which words are made up of (Katamba, ibid).
By definition, a morpheme cannot be
decomposed (divided up) into smaller units
which are either meaningful by themselves or
mark a grammatical function like singular or
plural number in the noun (Katamba,
1993:20).
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What is a morpheme?
As we said before, if we divided up the
word eat [i:t] (which contains just one
morpheme) into [i:] and [t], it would be
impossible to say what each of the
sounds [i:] and [t] means.
How to recognise a single sound or group
of sounds as representing a morpheme?

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What is a morpheme?
According to Katamba (1993: 20) whether a particular
sound or string of sounds is to be regarded as a
manifestation of a morpheme depends on the word in
which it appears.
So, while un- represents a negative morpheme and has
a meaning that can roughly be glossed as not in
words such as unjust (un just) and untidy (un tidy),
it has no claim to morpheme status when it occurs in
uncle or in under, since in these latter words it does
not have any identifiable grammatical or semantic
value, because cle and der on their own do not mean
anything.

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What is a morpheme?
In the other words, the negative morpheme un-
occurs in an identifiable large number of words,
besides un-just and un-tidy. We find it in unwell,
unsafe, unclean, unhappy, unfit, uneven, etc.
However, un- in the word under and uncle is not a
morpheme since it does not indicate any
grammatical or semantic function. For example, if
we divided up the word uncle into un cle, it
would be impossible to say what cle means.

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What is a morpheme?

We have been using the criteria


of meaning to identify
morphemes;
If a sound or group of sounds is
meaningless, then it cannot be
recognised as a morpheme.
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What is a morpheme?
For example, we would say that the word
unfriendly in the sentence the contesters sent
unfriendly messages to the jury consists of
three morphemes. One minimal unit of
meaning is friend, another minimal unit of
meaning is un- (meaning not), and a minimal
unit of grammatical function is ly (an
adjective forming suffix).

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Exercise
1. List the morphemes of the italicised word in
the following sentence:
The police reopened the investigation.
2. List one more word which contains each
morpheme represented below:
-ness as in kind ness
-ette as in kitchen ette

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Exercise
3. Write down the meaning of each
morpheme you identify.
4. What is the syntactic category (noun,
adjective, verb, etc.) of the form which
this morpheme attaches to and what is
the category of the resulting word?

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Answer
1. The word reopened consists of three
morphemes. One minimal unit of
meaning is open, another minimal
unit of meaning is re- (meaning
again), and a minimal unit of
grammatical function is ed (realising
or indicating past tense).
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Answer
2. First of all you should know that the elements
recognised as belonging to a given morpheme
(like ness and ette) contribute an
identifiable meaning to the word of which
they are a part. Thus,
sadness and cigarette are the resulting words
from attaching the morpheme ness to the
adjective sad and ette to the noun cigarette
respectively. (continues)

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Answer n0. 2
When the form ness is attached to an
adjective such as kind, it produces a noun
meaning having the state or condition (e.g.,
of being kind);
The addition of the diminutive morpheme
ette to a noun derives a new noun which
means smaller in size (e.g., a cigarette is a
small cigar or a cigarette is smaller than a
cigar).

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Answer n0. 2
As you have already noted in a), the syntactic
category of the form which the morpheme
ness attaches is an adjective (kind) and the
category of the resulting word is a noun
(kindness);
The syntactic category of the word Kitchen to
which the morpheme ette is attached to is a
noun, and the category of the resulting word
is also a noun (kitchenette).

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Morphemes, morphs and allomorphs
Introduction
The principle of phonological contrast is the main
used in the analysis of words. In this contrast, we
distinguish forms that differ in phonological
shape due to the sounds used and the meaning,
broadly defined to cover both lexical meaning
and grammatical function (Katamba:1993:24).
Thus, the phonological difference between /b/
and /:l/ correlates with a semantic difference.
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Morphemes, morphs and allomorphs
Katamba (1993:24)The difference in meaning
between the two sentences The girl plays and
The boy plays is attributable to the difference
in lexical meaning between /b/ and /:l/.
Likewise, the difference in grammatical
function between play-s (present tense) and
play-ed (past tense) is responsible for the
difference in meaning between The girl plays
and The girl played.

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Morphemes, morphs and allomorphs
Bearing in mind the explanation in slide 18,
we can say that: The morpheme is the
smallest difference in the shape of a word that
correlates with the smallest difference in word
or sentence meaning or grammatical
structure.
It is worth noting that the analysis of words
into morphemes begins with the isolation of
morphs.

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What is a morph?
According to Katamba (1993:24), a
morph is a physical form representing
some morpheme in a language.
It is a recurrent distinctive sound
(phoneme) or sequence of sounds
(phonemes).

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What is a morph?
Study the data below and identify the
morphs:
a. I parked the car. e. She parked the car.
b. We parked the car. f. She parks the car.
c. I park the car. g. We park the car.
d. He parks the car. h. He parked the car.

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What is a morph?
When distinguishing morphs from morphemes, in
each of the case, you will notice that morphs are
used to represent morphemes.
For example, the regular past tense morpheme in
English ed can phonologically be represented by
/-d/, /-t/ or /-d/. Each one of the variation in
pronunciation is a morph being used to represent
the pronunciation of ed in English.

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What is a morph?
The morphs are:
Morph Recurs in
/a/ I sentences (a) and (c)
/i:/ she sentences (e) and (f)
/hi:/ he sentences (d) and (h)
// the in all the sentences
/p:k/ park in all the sentences, sometimes with an
-ed suffix, sometimes with an s suffix
and sometimes on its own
/t/ -ed suffixed to park in (b), (e), (h)
/s/ -s suffixed to park in (d), (f)

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What is a morph?
Sometimes different morphs may represent
the same morpheme. For instance, the past
tense of regular verbs in English which is
spelled ed is realised in speech by /d/, /d/ or
/t/.
The phonological properties of the last
segment of the verb to which it is attached
determine the choice:

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What is a morph?
It is realised as:
a. /d/ if the verb ends in /d/ or /t/
e.g. mend /mend/ mended /mendd/
paint /pent/ painted /pentd/
b. /d/ after a verb ending in any voiced sound
except /d/
e.g. clean /kli:n/ cleaned /kli:nd/
weigh /we/ weighed /wed/

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What is a morph?
c. /t/ after a verb ending in any
voiceless consonant other than /t/
e.g. park /p:k/ parked
/p:kt/
miss /ms/ missed
/mst/

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
The central technique used in the
identification of morphemes is based on the
notion of distribution. i.e. the total set of
contexts in which a particular linguistic form
occurs.
We classify a set of morphs as allomorphs of
the same morpheme if they are in
complementary distribution (Katamba,
1993:27).

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
Morphs are said to be in complementary
distribution if
(i) they represent the same meaning or serve
the same grammatical function and
(ii) they are never found in identical contexts.
So, the three morphs /-d/, /-d/ and /-t/
which represent the English regular past tense
morpheme are in complementary distribution
(Katamba, 1993:27).
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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
Let us examine some English words, focussing
on the pronunciation of the underlined part of
each word, which represents the negative
morpheme in-. The morpheme can roughly be
glossed as not:
a. impossible [mpsb]
impatient [mpent]
immovable [mvb]

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
Each morph is restricted to occurring in the
contexts specified in (a), (b) and (c) above. Hence,
they are allomorphs of the same morpheme
(Katamba, 1993: 27).
b. intolerable [ntlrb]
indecent [ndi:snt]
intangible [ntnb]
inactive [nktv]
inelegance [nelns]

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
c. incomplete [kmpli:t]
incompatible [nkmptb]
ingratitude [nrttjd]
Identify the allomorphs of this negative
morpheme.
Write a statement accounting for the
distribution of each allomorph.

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
First of all isolate the allomorphs of
the negative morpheme.
You should have isolated the
following allomorphs of the
morpheme in-: im- [m-], in- [n-] and
in- [-].

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
And you should have said that the selection of
the allomorph that is used in a particular
context is not random.
In the data above, the nasal consonant in the
various allomorphs of the morpheme in- is
pronounced in a variety of ways, depending
on the nature of the sound that immediately
follows.

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
To predict the allomorph that is selected in each case,
the following rule is required:
[m-] will be selected before a labial consonant (e.g. p,
b, m, and f) as in [m]possible, [m]patient,
[m]movable.
[-] will be selected before the velar consonants [k]
and [] as in []complete, []gratitude.
[n-] will be selected before an alveolar consonant like
[t, d, s, z, n], as in [n]tolerable, [n]tangible, [n]decent
or before a vowel as in [n]active, [n]elegance.
(Taken from Katamba,1993:28)

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
The three allomorphs [m-], [n-] and [-
] of the morpheme in- are in
complementary distribution. This means
that selecting one precludes selecting the
others.
No two of them can occur in identical
environments. This example illustrates
this:

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
If a morpheme has several allomorphs, the
choice of allomorph used in a given context is
normally phonologically conditioned.
This means that the allomorph selected to
represent the morpheme in a particular
context is one whose phonological properties
are similar to those of sounds found in a
neighbouring allomorph of some other
morpheme (Katamba, 1993).

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The notion of distribution of
morphemes
Let us return to the earlier example of the allomorphs
of the English regular past tense, spelled ed and
realised in speech by /d/, /d/ or /t/.
Clearly, the distribution of allomorphs is phonologically
conditioned for
/-d/ is chosen after the alveolar stops or plosives /t/,
/d/;
voiced /-d/ is chosen after voiced segments other than
/d/ and
voiceless /t/ is chosen after voiceless consonants other
than /t/ (Katamba, 1993:29).
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Exercise
Why the choice of allomorph is phonologically
conditioned in the words below?
Cups
houses
rooms

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Answer
Thats because we select the allomorph s in
/kps/ if a noun ends in non-strident voiceless
consonant /p/, /t/, /k/, /f/, //;
The allomorph /-z/ in /hazz/ is selected if a
noun ends in an alveolar or alveo-palatal sibilant
such as /s/, /z/, //, /t/, //.
The allomorph /-z/ in /ru:mz/ is selected if the
noun ends in a voiced non-strident segment. This
includes all vowels and the consonants /b/, /d/,
//, /m/, /n/, //, /l/, /r/, /w/, /j/.
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Answer
So each one of the plural morphemes s
realised by /-s/, /z/ and /z/ are different
morphs;
as they are used to realise the plural
morpheme s they are called allomorphs
of the plural morpheme s. They are, in
form, compared to phones and
allophones, in Phonology.

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Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
Introduction
we have seen that the distribution of
allomorphs is usually subject to phonological
condition.
However, sometimes phonological factors play
no role in the selection of allomorphs.
In this lesson, you are going to study other
factors which can play a role in the selection
of allomorphs.
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Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
Pay attention to the following data:
Present tense Past tense
walk /w:k/ walk-ed /w:kt/
kiss /ks/ kiss-ed /kst/
grasp /r:sp/ grasp-ed /r:spt/

weep /wi:p/ wep-t /wept/


sweep /swi:p/ swep-t /swept/

shake /ek/ shook /k/


take /tek/ took /tk/

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Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
On what factors will the choice of allomorphs
in a), b) and c) depend?
In (a) the choice of allomorph is
phonologically conditioned; i.e. the past
tense morpheme ed is realised by a
phonologically conditioned allomorph /t/
because the final sound of the verbs walk, kiss
and grasp is voiceless.

43
Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
In (b), the choice of allomorph is
grammatically conditioned. This means,
it is dependent on the presence of a
particular grammatical element, it is the
presence of the past tense morpheme
which determines the choice of the
/wep/ and /swep/ allomorphs in verbs
that belong to this group .

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Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
For the verbs in (c), the past
tense dictates the choice of
the allomorphs took and shook
of the verbs take and shake,
respectively (Katamba, 1993).

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Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
In other cases, the choice of the allomorph
may be lexically conditioned for the use of a
particular allomorph being obligatory if a
certain word is present.
A good example of this is the realisation of
plural in English.
Normally the plural morpheme is realised by a
phonologically conditioned allomorph whose
distribution is shown next:

46
Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
a. the allomorph /-z/ is selected if a noun ends in
an alveolar or alveo-palatal sibilant (/s/, /z/, //,
//, /t/, //).
Examples: asses /sz/; mazes /mezz/
fishes /fz/
b. the allomorph /-s/ is selected if a noun ends in a
non-strident voiceless consonant (/p/, /t/, /k/,
/f/, //).
Examples: cups /kps/; leeks /li:ks/; pets /pets/
47
Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
the allomorph /-z/ is selected if the noun ends in
a voiced non-strident segment; this includes all
vowels and the consonants /b/, /d/, //, /b/, /m/,
/n/, //, /l/, /r/, /w/, /j/.
Example: bags /bz/; rooms /ru:mz/; shoes
/u:z/
Find other words from which the plural
morpheme s can be represented by the
allomorphs /-z/, /z/ and /-s/. write them down
and show why they are allomorphs of s.
48
Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning and Suppletion
The plural morpheme s can be
represented by three different morphs
/-z/, /-s/ and /-z/.
However, the plural of the word ox is not
oxes, but oxen.
Why the rule used in a, b and c above
fails to account for the realisation of the
plural morpheme in the word oxen?
49
Grammatical conditioning, Lexical
conditioning
It is not easy to explain the reasons for the failure
to account for the realisation of the plural
morpheme in the word oxen.
But we can say that the plural of ox is not *oxes
but oxen, although words that rhyme with ox take
the expected /z/ plural allomorph (/fksz/ foxes
and /bksz/ boxes).
So the choice of the allomorph en is lexically
conditioned, because it is depended on the
presence of the specific noun ox (Katamba,
1993).

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Suppletion
Finally, there are morphemes whose
allomorphs show no phonetic similarity.
For example, the forms good / better both
represent the lexeme GOOD despite the fact
that they do not have even a single sound in
common.
Where allomorphs of a morpheme are
phonologically unrelated it is said to be a case
of Suppletion (Katamba, 1993).

51
Exercise
1. Which rules account for the
realisation of the plural morpheme in
the following words?
Beaches men
2. The pair good and better is not
unique in English. Find other
examples of suppletion.
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Answer
Beaches /bi:tz/, the choice of the
allomorph /-z/ is phonologically
conditioned because the noun beach ends in
an alveo-palatal sibilant /t/.
Men /men/, the choice of the allomorph
/-e-/ is lexically conditioned because it
depends on the presence of the specific noun
man.
Another example can be go ~ went (not
*goed)

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