8.1 Advanced Theoretical Studies in Grammar: What is generative morphology?

Chapter 8


8.1 Analyze the place of generative morphology in language


In this section, we will handle morphology within the framework of generative grammar. Within such a framework, the key question is: “what knowledge does one have regarding the structure of words in a given language?” A generative theory of morphology provides the answer to this question by stating rules through which words are created. Such rules are referred to as word formation rules. If the business of morphology is the formation of words, then it is important to understand what exactly a what exactly a word is.


The concept ‘word’ can be defined from various criteria. Unfortunately, these criteria are either unsatisfactory or are in conflict with one another.

  • Orthographically (the way it is written), a word is said to occur between spaces, one to the left and the other to the right. In “He left early”, we have three words. But how are we to treat compound nouns such as ‘school teacher’? Going by this criterion, we have two words. However, if we go by meaning, our intuition tells us that we are referring to one person and therefore we have one word. This criterion is therefore
  • We could also use the phonological criterion, according to which words are phonological units separated by This means that people pause at the end of a word, not in the middle of it. The trouble with this is that people do sometimes pause in the middle of words. Such pauses are at times taken up by fillers like ‘ee’ or ‘um’ as in ‘ dis-ee-illusion -um-ment’. Are we then to say that ‘dis’ is one word, ‘illusion’ another and ‘ment’ yet another? In addition, words run together in rapid speech so that instead of saying ‘do not know’, one says ‘duno’. Is this a case of three words or one word?
  • The semantic criterion sees a word as a unit of It expresses a unified semantic concept. This suggests that a given word will have a certain meaning. What then happens words like ‘bank’ which have different but unrelated meanings? Are we to say that each meaning constitutes a different word? What about phrasal verbs such as ‘break up with’. Semantically, this expression carries one meaning (end a relationship) but as you can see, there are three words orthographically. Do we therefore have one or three words?

Also consider the case of a word like ‘rewrite’ which means ‘write again’. Why should ‘write again’ be taken as two words if it is a synonym of ‘rewrite’?

  • From a morphological perspective, a word can only be modified on the edges. That is, you can add prefixes and suffixes as in ‘undo’ and ‘doing’ But consider a word like ‘brothers-in-law’. This is supposed to be one word but we see an affix occurring in the middle of it rather than on the edge as in ‘brother-in-law’s. Words that have infixes also present a similar challenge to this criterion.
  • According to the syntactic criterion, which is considered the most satisfactory, a word is said to have internal cohesion. This means that a word cannot be interrupted as in ‘satisveryfactory’. It also has external distribution, meaning that if it has to move, it does so as a unit but not in For example, we can either say, ‘satisfactory indeed’ or ‘indeed satisfactory’ but not ‘satis indeed factory’. A word also has independence. It can therefore stand alone as a meaningful free form. Hence, ‘help’ is a word but ‘-ful’ is not.



Now that we have an idea of what a word is, let us go back to the notion of word formation. Generative morphology sees word formation rules as being very productive- so much so that they can generate an infinite number of actual and potential words. What does this mean? A word formation rule is said to be productive if it can be used to create new words in the language. For example, from most existing English verbs such as ‘clean’, we can add the affix ‘–er’ to form a noun whose meaning is ‘the person who does the verb in question’. Likewise, we can add this affix to a non-existent but potential verb like ‘lind’ to form the noun ‘linder’. The rule will however disallow ‘erlind’ since ‘-er’ is   a suffix and not a prefix.

Productivity is a matter of degree since some word formation processes are more general than others (consider suffixation and backformation respectively). It should be noted that productivity also has a time dimension. At one time, the suffix ‘-th’ that formed words such as ‘warmth’ and ‘length’ was productive but it no longer is.

Ideally, there is no limit to the words that can be formed through word formation rules. However, a process called blocking places restrictions. For example, to the word ‘steal’ we cannot add ‘-er’ to refer to one who steals. The word ‘stealer’ is blocked because a word with a similar meaning –thief- already exists. The origin of the word may also block a given affix. For instance, we cannot form ‘acter’ from ‘act’ since the latter is borrowed from Latin, a language that adds ‘-or’ instead.


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