Chapter 5: Morphology

5.2 Roots, bases, and affixes

Affixes vs roots

In this section we look at the possible shapes that morphemes themselves can take. Some morphemes are affixes: they have to attach to something. The morphemes -s and inter- and -al are all affixes. You can’t say them on their own, they have to attach to something else. We write affixes with a hyphen on one side or the other to indicate this need for attachment.

The thing an affix attaches to is called a base. Some bases are morphologically simple, while others are morphologically complex.

For example, consider the word librarian. This word is formed by attaching the affix -ian to the base library.

Librarian can then itself be the base for another affix: for example, the word librarianship, the state or role of being a librarian, is formed by attaching the affix -ship to the base librarian.

There is a special name for simple bases: root. A root is the smallest possible base, which cannot be divided, what we might think of as the core of a word. Roots in English we’ve seen so far in this chapter include cat, library, and nation.

If you look at the history of the words library and nation, they both trace back to Latin (by way of French), and in Latin the relevant words were morphologically complex: library traces back to the Latin root libr- (meaning “book”), and nation traces back to the Latin root nat- (meaning “be born”). When a child first encounters a word like library or nation, however, the word doesn’t come annotated with this historical information! In the minds of most contemporary English speakers, it is likely that library and nation are treated as simple roots; in Chapter 13, you’ll learn about how this kind of hypothesis could be tested experimentally.

Turning back to affixes, an affix is any morpheme that needs to attach to a base. We use the term “affix” when we want to refer to all of these together, but we usually specify what type of affix we’re talking about when possible.

Types of affixes

an affix that attaches before its base, like inter- in international.
an affix that follows its base, like -s in cats.
an affix that attaches around its base.
an affix that attaches inside its base.
Simultaneous Affix
an affix that takes place at the same time as its base.


An example of a circumfix can be found in the marking of plural possessors in many Algonquian languages. The following examples are from Meskwaki, spoken in parts of the Midwest of the US and in Northern Mexico; the source of these examples is Oxford (2020), who adapted them from an in-preparation grammar by Amy Dahlstrom (A grammar of Meskwaki, an Algonquian language). These examples are presented in Meskwaki orthographi; “a·” indicates a long vowel.

(2) a. ne-ta·nes-aki
“my daughters”
(2) b. ne-ta·nes-ena·n-aki
out daughters”

What you can see here is that the singular possessor in “my daughters” is marked only by a prefix, but the plural possessor in “our daughters” is marked by the combination of the prefix ni- and the suffix -ena·n—or, in other words, by a circumfix.

These examples have morpheme-by-morpheme glosses, which means that the morphological analysis has been done for you; in Section 5.X we’ll discuss how we figure out the boundaries between morphemes in a language we aren’t already familiar with.Morpheme-by-morpheme glosses use standard abbreviations:

  • 1 stands for “first person” (I, me, my / we, us, our)
  • PL stands for “plural” (so 1PL means “we, us, our”)
  • AN stands for “animate”. Algonquian languages distinguish all nouns as “animate” or “inanimate”, and this is reflected in its morphology.


Infixes are affixes that appear in the middle of another morpheme. For example, in Tagalog (a language with about 24 million speakers, most of them in the Philippines) the infix -um- appears immediately after the first consonant the root to which it attaches, to form the perfective form of a verb (used to indicate completed action, usually translated with the English simple past):

(3) a. [takbuh] run [tumakbuh] ran
b. [lakad] walk [lumakad] walked
c. [bili] buy [bumili] bought
d. [kain] eat [kumain] ate

Simultaneous affix

Simultaneous affixes are common in signed languages and in languages with tone. When signing, it’s possible to do things with multiple articulators (a second hand, or your face), or to add motion on top of a sign, in a way that is not possible with oral articulations in spoken languages.

For example, in ASL there is a morpheme that attaches to verbs to express durative aspect (the meaning that something happens for a while, or for a long time). This morpheme involves adding a particular circular motion to the base sign for the verb; this circular motion doesn’t happen before or after the verb, but simultaneously with it.

(4) [VIDEO: ASL verb, verb+durative]

Once we see these examples in signed languages, we can think of morphology in some spoken languages that has a similar profile. For example, languages with tone sometimes have tonal morpheme, that are overlaid on the consonants and vowels of a word.

English isn’t a tonal language, but we have some pairs of words that clearly involve the same root, but where the stress has shifted. These are noun-verb pairs where the noun has stress on the first syllable, but the verb has stress on the second syllable.

(5) a. They used to use cords to recórd music.
b. I have a pérmit that permíts me to drive.
c. I receive mail at my home áddress, at least when it’s addréssed properly.

Not all English speakers have stress shift in the same pairs of words—many people pronounce address with stress on the second syllable in both the noun and the verb, for example.

Free vs bound morphemes

Another way to divide morphemes is by whether they are free or bound. A free morpheme is one that can occur as a word on its own. A bound morpheme, by contrast, can only occur in words if it’s accompanied by one or more other morphemes.

Because affixes by definition need to attach to a base, only roots can be free. Indeed, most roots in English are free, but we do have a few roots that can’t occur on their own. For example, the root -whelmed, which occurs in overwhelm and underwhelmed, can’t occur on its own as *whelmed.

By contrast, in many other languages all (or most) roots are bound, because they always have to occur with at least some inflectional morphology. This is the case for verbs in French and the other Romance languages, for example; it was also the case for Latin, which is why the roots nat- and libr- were shown with hyphens above.

In our notation, we show that morphemes are bound by putting hyphens either before or after them (on the side that they attach to other morphemes).


Oxford, William R. 2020. Algonquian. In Routledge handbook of North American languages, ed. Daniel Siddiqi , Michael Barrie, Carrie Gillon, and Éric Mathieu. Routledge.


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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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