Morphology - forming words

We've just seen that grammar is a system of rules which tells us how we form words, how these words are formed into sentences, and what the meaning and use of these words and sentences are when we have done this. We're going to look closely now at the first half of that definition - what do we mean by form? Let's start with how we form words.

Forming words

We need all sorts of different types of word to make sentences with different meanings. The set of rules that tells us how we make these words is called morphology. To see these rules in action, let's start off with three simple words:
man play happy
Next, let's experiment a little and see if we can make these words any shorter. Here are all the possibilities:
  • ma
  • m
  • pla
  • pl
  • p
  • happ
  • hap
  • ha
  • h
You can see that none of these shorter combinations of letters means very much at all. So we can quite confidently say that our three original words are the smallest combinations of letters we can get away with that have any sort of meaning. We call these morphemes.
At this point, there doesn't seem to be any difference between what we've just called morphemes and what we know of as words. And with these particular examples we'd be right. These three morphemes, man, play and happy, are also words in their own right. We can call these types of morpheme lexical morphemes (the word lexis is another way to say vocabulary - that is, words!)
But it's not always the case that morphemes are also words in their own right. There is another type of morpheme which can't stand alone as a word in its own right. Instead, it needs to be attached to the first type of morpheme. And it's by combining these two types together that we build different types of word.
We can see some examples of this other type of morpheme by experimenting again with our three original words, this time to make them longer:
  • manhood
  • manly
  • mankind
  • unmanly
  • plays
  • played
  • playing
  • playful
  • playfully
  • playfulness
  • player
  • happily
  • happiness
  • unhappy
  • unhappily
We can call our three original words (man, play and happy) our root words - they are the starting point from which other words grow. What we've done here is added some other morphemes to the beginning or end of our root words to make new words entirely. These morphemes are:
  • -hood
  • -ly
  • -kind
  • un-
  • -s
  • -ed
  • -ing
  • -ful
  • -ness
  • -er

The hyphen tells us whether the morpheme comes before or after the root word. If we add one of these morphemes before the root word we call it a prefix; if we add it after, we call it a suffix.

By themselves, these morphemes aren't much use. But when we attach them to one of our root words, they give us a whole range of words that we can use to make different types of sentence. For this reason we call these types of morpheme grammatical morphemes – they are the morphemes which allow us to add grammar to the mix and open up the whole range of words, structures and meanings which we'll find out about in this course.
Luckily there are patterns, or rules, when we add grammatical morphemes. For example, if we add -ed to the end of a regular verb, we get the past form of that verb:
  • play - played
  • work - worked
  • jump - jumped
Or if we add un- or il- or dis- to the beginning of an adjective, we usually get the opposite meaning:
  • kind - unkind
  • legal - illegal
  • satisfied - dissatisfied
With these rules about forming words we can predict with a fairly high level of certainty what type of word we end up with when we add one of these morphemes. This is useful to us because it gives us some consistency. It would soon get complicated and almost impossible to learn if we added a completely random combination of letters in order to change an adjective into its opposite.
We'll talk more about all the different types of word (verbs, nouns, adjectives and so on) later. For now though, let's move on and have a look at how we make sentences.