Chapter 5: Morphology

5.1 What is morphology?

In linguistics, morphology is the study of how words are put together. For example, the word cats is put together from two parts: cat, which refers to a particular type of furry four-legged animal (🐈), and -s, which indicates that there’s more than one such animal (🐈 🐈‍⬛ 🐈).

Most words in English have only one or two pieces in them, but some technical words can have many more, like anti-internationalization, which has at least six (anti-inter-nation-al-iz(e)-ation). In many languages, however, words are very often made up of many parts, and a single word can express a meaning that would require a whole sentence in English.

For example, in the Harvaqtuurmiutut variety of Inuktitut, the word iglujjualiulauqtuq has 5 pieces, and expresses a meaning that could be translated by the full English sentence “They (sg) made a big house.” (iglu = house, jjua = big, liu = make, lauq = distant past, tuq = declarative; example from Compton and Pittman 2010).

Not all combinations of pieces are possible, however. To go back to the simple example of cat and -s, in English we can’t put those two pieces in the opposite order and still get the same meeting—scat is a word in English, but it doesn’t mean “more than one cat”, and it doesn’t have the pieces cat and -s in it, instead it’s an entirely different word.

One of the things we know when we know a language is how to create new words out of existing pieces, and how to understand words that other people use. We also know what combinations of pieces are not possible. In this chapter we’ll learn about the different ways that human languages can build words, as well as about the structure that can be found inside words.

What is a word?

If morphology is the investigation of how words are put together, we first need a working definition of what a word is.

In everyday life, in English we might think of a word as something that’s written with spaces on either side. This is an orthographic (=spelling-based) definition of what a word is. But just as writing isn’t necessarily a reliable guide to a language’s phonetics or phonology, it doesn’t always identify words in the sense that is relevant for linguistics. And not all languages are written with spaces in the way English is—not all languages have a standard written form at all. So we need a definition of “word” that doesn’t rely on writing.

This is actually a hotly debated topic! Linguists might distinguish phonological words (words for the purposes of sound patterns), morphological words (words for the purposes of morphology), and syntactic words (words for the purposes of sentence structure), and might sometimes disagree about the boundaries between some of these.

In this textbook, though, we don’t need to worry about possible differences between these types of words, and for the purposes of linguistic investigation of grammar we can say that a word is the smallest separable unit in language.

What this means is that a word is the smallest unit that can stand on its own in an utterance. For example, content words in English (nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs) can stand by themselves as one-word utterances when you’re answering a question:

(1) a. What do you like to eat?
Answer: cake (noun)
b. What did you do last night?
Answer: sleep (verb)
c. What colour is the sky today?
Answer: orange (adjective)
d. How did you wake up this morning?
Answer: slowly (adverb)

Words are also syntactically independent: they can appear in different positions in a sentence, changing their order with respect to other elements even while the order of elements inside each word stays the same.

Though morphology is concerned with the shape of words, words aren’t the smallest unit of language. As we already saw earlier in this chapter, words themselves can have smaller pieces inside them, as in the simple cases of cats (cats) or international (international)—but these smaller pieces can’t stand on their own.

To refer to these smaller pieces within words, we use the technical term morpheme. A morpheme is the smallest possible pairing of both form (sign or sound) on the one hand, and meaning or grammatical function on the other. (We say “grammatical function” because while some morphemes have clear meanings, of the type that will be discussed in Chapter 7 in the context of lexical semantics, other morphemes express more abstract grammatical information.)

Words that contain more than one morpheme are morphologically complex. Words with only a single morpheme are morphologically simple.

The word morphology is itself morphologically complex, being made up of morph- “shape” and -ology “study of”. So morphology is the study of shapes, in linguistics of word shapes.

In biology, “morphology” is the study of the shape of animals and other organisms, and if you do an internet search for “morphology”, this is often the first meaning that comes up.

Our goal in morphology is to understand how words can be built out of morphemes in a given language. In the this chapter we will first look at the shapes of different morphemes (and morphological processes); in later sections we will review different functions that morphology can have, looking at divisions between derivational morphology, inflectional morphology, and compounding.


Compton, Richard, and Christine Pittman. 2010. Word-formation by phase in Inuit. Lingua 120:2167–2192


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Essentials of Linguistics, 2nd edition by Catherine Anderson; Bronwyn Bjorkman; Derek Denis; Julianne Doner; Margaret Grant; Nathan Sanders; and Ai Taniguchi is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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