10.1 Advanced Theoretical Studies in Grammar: Do you Understand Lexical Morphology?

Chapter  10


10.1 Explain the concept of lexical morphology


Among generative morphologists is a particular group called the lexicalists. Their brand of generative morphology is known as Lexical Morphology. It is so called because it posits that all derivational morphemes should be dealt with in the lexicon. The lexicon not only contains a list of bases and affixes, but also the rules that govern their combination.


In Lexical Morphology, morphemes are said to be arranged hierarchically in strata (layers). Accordingly, English derivational affixes are grouped into two, depending on their phonological behaviour. The first type is called non-neutral or stratum 1 affixes. Such affixes have a phonological effect on the base to which they attach. Consider the following examples:

1)`product- pro`ductive (2) `colony- colo`nial (3) `photograph- pho`tographer – photo`graphic

Have you noticed what is happening? In the first word, the addition of ‘-ive’ shifts the stress from the first syllable to the second one. In the second word, the addition of ‘-ial’ shifts the stress to the third syllable and so on.

Also consider what happens when we add ‘-ition’ to ‘define’ to form ‘definition’. Do you realise that the first and the second vowel sounds in the first word change in pronunciation in the second word? The point is that all these affixes change the base in one way or another, and are therefore not neutral in their phonological effect.

The second type of affix is said to be neutral and is referred to as stratum 2. Such an affix neither changes the stress position nor the pronunciation of a base. Here are examples:

`power- `powerful – `powerless, `good- `goodness, `modern- `modernise, `organ-


Note that in cases where stratum 1 and stratum 2 affixes co-occur, word formation rules require that stratum 1 be placed next to the base followed by those in stratum 2.

Examples: ‘product-ive-ness, colon-ial-ism


As already mentioned, the Lexicalists argue that the lexicon contains both bases and affixes such as ‘bag’ and ‘-s’ respectively. Each is assigned a word class. For example, both the base and affix above belong to the noun class and are therefore marked [+noun]. Heads and features percolation principle is a technique used by the Lexicalists to analyse the structure of morphologically complex words (those that comprise more than one morpheme). Usually, if a word is complex , the right hand element is the head of the  word. This implies that in English, a suffix will be the head of the word in which it  occurs, given that it determines the word class of the entire word through percolation.

Actually, ‘percolation’ means ‘ to pass on’. The features of the head are passed on to the complex word. What features are these? All nouns have the feature [+noun]. They are also characterised on the basis of whether they are count (hence [+count]) or non-count ([-count]) and on whether they are animate [+animate] or inanimate [-animate]. All verbs are [+verb]. In addition, they are either [+transitive] or [-transitive]. All adjectives are [+adjective]. They are also [+attributive] and [+predicative] since most of them can be used either way as in “ That was a heroic act” (attributive usage) versus “ The act was heroic” (predicative usage).


The lexicalists use the family analogy to explain the formation of words. From the diagram, ‘citizenship’ is the mother (complex word). Ironically, this mother is created by her two daughers- the noun ‘citizen’ and the nominal suffix ‘-ship’. She inherits the features of the daughter on the right hand side, which is considered the head of the family.


It is quite easy to segment some words into morphs and subject them to structural analysis. However, this is not the case in other words such as geese, better and took; yet we know that each consists of two morphemes. Actually, one wonders how to identify the plural morph since in some cases it is ‘-s’ as in ‘pen-s’, in others it is ‘-es’ as in ‘box-es’ and yet in others like ‘geese’ it is unpredictable. The word ‘went’ is even more problematic when it comes to identifying the past tense morph for it does not resemble the base ‘go’ in any way.

Also problematic are words such as ‘repress’. On the one hand, we can argue that it contains only one morpheme. On the other, we can say that there are two morphemes- ‘re-‘ and ‘press’ (so that the meaning is ‘press again’). Out of context, we cannot tell which is which.

Historically, we know that there are words that were once segmentable but they no longer are. They include: receive and deceive as well as permit and commit. The bases were ‘ceive’ and ‘mit’ respectively. Today, neither of the two parts of these words has an independent function and therefore we cannot talk of separate morphs.

Further complicating the problem of morphological analysis are what are called portmanteau morphs. They realise more than one morpheme as in ‘She talk-s.’ The morph or affix ‘-s’ expresses the following morphemes: singular, present tense and third person, all rolled into one. How then are we to divide it up?

Earlier, we argued that phrasal verbs like ‘bring up’ should be considered one word courtesy of the semantic criterion. It is a word that consists of only one morpheme. The problem is that this morpheme can be discontinued as in: “ They will bring the child up well.” This separation creates an obstacle for morphological analysis


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