9.1 Advanced Theoretical Studies in Grammar: What are morphemes? Can you identify the different types?

Chapter 9

9.1 Explain morphemes and there place in the English Language



We begin by looking at the branches of morphology before focusing on word formation processes in the next section. Broadly, morphology is divided into two: derivational/lexical and inflectional morphology. This division entails that there are two types of morphemes or affixes:

  • inflectional
  • derivational/lexical.


Inflectional morphemes produce a new word form from a base while derivational ones produce a new word from a base. For example, when we add the suffix ‘-s’ to the base ‘leader’, we end up with ‘leaders’ which is a word form rather than a new word. The suffix ‘-s’ is therefore inflectional since all it does is introduce the grammatical aspect of plural. However, when we add ‘-ship’ to ‘leader’, we end up with ‘leadership’ which is a new word since it introduces a new meaning- state or condition of leading. ‘-ship’ is therefore a derivational suffix.

The specific differences between the two are discussed below.

  1. -Derivational ones change word Example: slow (adjective)- slowly (adverb)

-Inflectional ones maintain word class. Example: slow (adjective)- slower (adjective) Exceptions: Note that nearly all prefixes are class maintaining although they are derivational. Example: connect (verb)- disconnect (verb). Some derivational suffixes also maintain class. Example: child (noun)- childhood (noun)

  1. -Derivational ones may have an irregular Example: coverage (instance or action of covering)- baggage (collection of bags and suitcases used in travel)

-Inflectional ones have a regular meaning. Examples: girls, books (plural meaning) Exceptions: The ‘-er’ added to verbs to form nouns has a regular meaning although it is derivational. Examples: singer (person who sings), teacher (person who teaches)

  1. -Derivational affixes are semi-productive. This means that a given derivational affix will only attach to certain bases in a word class and not others. Examples: undo,

*uneat. Although both ‘do’ and ‘eat’ are transitive verbs, one accepts the prefix while the other does not.

-Inflectional ones are fully productive. This means that if you add a morpheme to one member of a word class, you can add it to all the other members.  The plural and tense morphemes are good examples.

Exceptions: Although inflectional, tense is not marked on modal auxiliaries. Examples:

*cans, *musted . Also, some derivational morphemes such as ‘–ness’ are highly productive. Examples: kindness, frankness, eagerness.

  1. Derivational affixes are closer to the base or root than inflectional Example: dis- continu-ation-s. ‘dis’ and ‘ation’ appear next to the base while the inflectional ‘-s’ is further on the outside. Note that this distinction is problematic in instances where a word has more than one suffix as in ‘report-ed-ly’. Although ‘-ly’ is further from the base, it is still considered derivational.
  2. Derivational affixes constitute an open class, meaning that new ones can be A recent suffix is ‘-thon’ which was originally cut off from the word ‘marathon’. It is now added to verbs to refer to activities that demand endurance as in ‘walka-thon’ and ‘reada-thon’). Another one is derived from the word ‘alcoholic’ and is used to refer to some kind of addiction. It is used to form words such as ‘workaholic’ and ‘shopaholic’.

–     Inflectional ones form a closed or fixed class. The morphemes here are number in verbs and nouns, possession in nouns and pronouns, tense and person in verbs and gradability in adjectives. The forms/realisations of these morphemes have not increased over time.

For a generative morphologist, it is not enough to know the different types of morphemes. More important is the ability to recognize morphemes.


We identify bound morphemes by comparing them with others that occur in similar environments. This comparison is based on: (1) form (2) meaning (3) function Consider the following Turkish data:

/mumlar/          candles

/toplar/             guns

/adamlar/         men

/kitaplar/          books

You should have noted that the recurrent form in all the words is /-lar/ . It must therefore be a morpheme representing a certain meaning. It carries the meaning of ‘more than one’ and has the function of pluralizing. As mentioned earlier, when the form ‘-er’ is added to English verbs, it carries the meaning of ‘one who does ——’. Its function is to  nominalize (make noun).



To understand how morphemes combine to form words, let us revisit the topic of word- formation which was covered in the unit Morphology, Syntax and Semantics. As we have already mentioned, generative morphology posits that the processes of forming words are rule-governed. We will now briefly look at these processes, all of which are derivational. The four main ones are: prefixation, suffixation, compounding and conversion.



While a few prefixes change the class of the base to which they are added, the majority do not. The class changing ones include:

  • a- as in sleep (V) — asleep (adj)
  • be- as in friend (N)—befriend (V)
  • en- as in slave (N)—enslave (V) The class maintaining ones include:
  • The negative ones such as: (i) a- (moral—amoral), (ii) dis- (obey—disobey), (iii) il- (legal—illegal), (iv) ir- (regular—irregular) (v) im- (possible—impossible) (vi) un- (stable—unstable).
  • The reversive ones such as (i) de- (colonize—decolonize) (ii) dis- (connect— disconnect) (iii) un- (lock—unlock)
  • The degree/size ones such as (i) hyper- (active—hyperactive). Hyper means ‘extreme’. (ii) mini- (market—minimarket) (iii) over- (react—overreact),(iv) under- (value—undervalue) (v) micro- (teaching—microteaching) (vi) macro- (planning— macroplanning) (vii) mega- (market- megamarket)
  • The number ones such as: (i) bi- (annual—bi-annual) (ii) tri- (angle—triangle) (iii) multi- (million—multimillion)
  • The orientation/attitude ones such as: (i) pro- (democracy—prodemoracy) (ii) anti- (social—antisocial)
  • The locative/space ones such as: (i) fore- (word—foreword) (ii) back- (bone— backbone)
  • The time ones such as: (i) fore- (tell—foretell) (ii) pre- (independence—pre- independence) (iii) post- (independence—post-independence) (iv) ex- (wife—ex- wife)


This is the addition of an affix to the base. Most suffixes are class changing but a few are class maintaining. The class maintaining ones include: (i) –hood (boy— boyhood) (ii) – dom (king—kingdom) (iii) –ess (lion—lioness) (iv) –ship (member—membership) (v) – let (pig—piglet) (vi) –ish (dark—darkish). As you can see, the word class we begin off with is the one we end up. (i-v) are nouns while (vi) is an adjective.

The class changing ones include:

  • Noun forming

-Here there are those that form nouns from verbs: (i) –er (sing—singer) (ii) -al (arrive— arrival) (iii) –ment (encourage—encouragement) (iv) –ee (train—trainee) (v) –ant (inhabit—inhabitant)

-There are also those that form nouns from adjectives: (i) –ness (kind—kindness) (ii) –ity (loyal—loyality)

  • Verb forming suffixes

-Those that form verbs from nouns include: (i) –ify (class—classify) (ii) –ise (victim— victimise)

-Those that form verbs from adjectives include: (i) ise- (brutal—brutalise) (ii) –ify (false-

–falsify (iii) –en (soft—soften)

  • Adjective forming suffixes

-Those that form adjectives from nouns include: (i) –al (education—educational) (ii) – less (home—homeless) (iii) –like (child—childlike) (iv) –ly (friend—friendly) (v) –y (cream—creamy) (vi) –ish (fool—foolish) (vii) –ful (success—successful)

-Those that form adjectives from verbs include: (i) –able (manage—manageable) (ii) –ive (attract—attractive)

  • Adverb forming suffixes

-There is only one that forms adverbs from adjectives. It is –ly as in (quick—quickly)

-Those that form adverbs from nouns include: (i) -wise (clock—clockwise) (ii) –ward (wind—windward) (iii) –style (mafia—mafiastyle)


A compound is a word consisting more than one base and functioning both  grammatically and semantically as a single unit (word). There is no hard and fast rule regarding how to write compound words. For example, some are written as single words (hairdresser), others are hyphenated (double-booking) and yet others are separated (bus stop). There are various ways of forming compounds. Below are some of them.

  • Noun + noun teapot, airplane
  • Noun + verb nosebleed, sunshine
  • Noun + adjective childproof, lifelong
  • Verb + noun pickpocket, cut-throat


  • Verb + verb typewrite, make-believe
  • Adjective + noun blackboard, heavyweight
  • Adjective + verb whitewash + fine-tune
  • Adjective + adjective bitter-sweet + light-green


Conversion is a derivational process in which a word is changed from one class to another without adding an affix. This process is fairly productive as it affects all word classes. Here are examples of conversion, showing the direction in which the conversion takes place.

  • Noun to verb (a) dance— (to) dance, (a) bottle—(to) bottle
  • Verb to noun (to) walk—(a) walk, (to) guide—(a) guide
  • Adjective to verb better—(to) better, tame—(to) tame
  • Adjective to noun poor—(the) poor, daily—(a) daily
  • Adjective to verb calm—(to) calm, dry—(to) dry

In case you are wondering how one determines the direction in which the conversion takes place, the answer is that the more basic word is used in the definition of the other. For example, the verb ‘calm’ is derived from the adjective ‘calm’ because to calm (V) is to make calm (Adj). The adjective is therefore more basic because it helps us to understand the meaning of the verb.

In some cases, conversion is said to come about as a result of changing the stress position. Examples include: `conduct (N) and con`duct (V), `progress and pro`gress Other word-formation processes are:



This is the process of forming new words by deleting a suffix from an already existing word. In other words, the word is formed backwards. Examples are: donation—donate, swindler—swindle, editor—edit



Clipping is the cutting short of a word, either at the beginning or at the end, without changing meaning. Examples are: examination—exam, advertisement—advert or ad, hamburger—burger



To blend is to join or mix. Blending is a process that involves both compounding and clipping. For example, from the compound word ‘motor hotel’ we form the blend ‘motel’ by clipping the last syllable of the first word (-tor) and the first syllable of the second  word (ho-) and then joining the remaining parts. Other examples are ‘breath analyser— breathlyser and European television—Eurovision.



Acronyms are an extreme form of clipping in which only the initial letters of different words are used. These letters are pronounced as a word. Examples: Kenya African National Union—KANU, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation—NATO.

Note that forms such as tv (television), id (identity) and Ku (Kenyatta University) do not qualify since the letters are not pronounced as words. These are simply initialisms.



There are two types. The first is full reduplication in which the entire base is repeated as in hush— hush-hush and so—so-so. In kiswahili, we have words like: songa—songa songa, maji—maji maji. The other type is partial reduplication in which only part of the base is repeated as in dilly-dally, helter-skelter and flip-flop.


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