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2.1 Word, morpheme and allomorph
2.1.1 Various types of morphemes
2.2 Word classes
2.3 Inflectional morphology
2.3.1 Other types of inflection
2.3.2 Status of inflectional morphology
2.4 Derivational morphology
2.4.1 Types of word formation
2.4.2 Further issues in word formation
2.4.3 The mixed lexicon
2.4.4 Phonological processes in word formation
Morphology is the study of words, their internal structure and the changes they
undergo when altered to form new words (word formation) or when they have
different roles within a sentence (grammatical inflection). This leads to a
two-fold division in the field as shown in the following diagram.
grammar, conjugation/declination
(inflectional morphology)
word formation
(lexical morphology)
Morphology is often referred to as grammar, the set of rules governing words in
a language. Traditionally, grammars were based on the models of classical Latin
and Greek, languages which contained a large number of endings. It is thus not
surprising that classical authors were concerned with the structure of words.
However, for later European languages, and certainly for modern English, the
categories which were first devised for Latin and Greek are not usually
applicable and can be a genuine hinderance in understanding the grammatical
structure of modern languages. Because of the cultural prestige of the classical
languages the divisions made by their grammarians have persisted to this day.
The difficulty is that, on a formal level, many of the categories of classical
grammar do not exist today. For instance, it makes little sense to talk of
accusative and dative, in a formal sense, in present-day English as these cases
are not marked on nouns and there is only one combined form for pronouns, i.e.
her, him, us, them, etc. Of course the notion of accusative, the object of a verb’s
action, as in Fiona grasped the nettle, continues to exist as does the notion of
dative as in Fiona gave Fergal the parcel. But because of the lack of formal
Raymond Hickey Morphology Page 2 of 24
marking, grammatical categories like the accusative and dative are indicated via
syntax (sentence structure), the topic of the next chapter.
Grammar is a part of language which is relatively autonomous. By this is
meant that it has its own internal rules and is not necessarily affected by the
organisation of reality outside of language. The correspondence between
language and the external world is not obligatory and during the long evolution
of human language it has developed a degree of autonomy which students of
linguistics should be aware of. For instance, plural nouns do not always refer to
a group of objects, e.g. The contents of the bag could be an apple (singular) and
The means to open the box could be a knife (again, singular).
Another instance of autonomy can be seen in gender. Languages usually
have some concept of natural gender, for instance in Modern English nouns
referring to female beings co-occur with feminine personal pronouns and those
which refer to male beings co-occur with the appropriate masculine forms.
However, many languages, particularly in the Indo-European family, still have
grammatical gender which has co-occurrence restrictions for all nouns,
adjectives and determiners (articles and pronouns). German is one such
language, the Romance languages are further examples. Now while it is
probably the case that grammatical gender derives historically from natural
gender, in Indo-European it became independent of the linguistically external
facts of gender very early on and by the time of the first attestations of daughter
languages (before 1,000 BC) gender had become autonomous vis à vis the
non-linguistic reality which language reflects.
This can be illustrated by a few examples: in Irish the word for ‘soul’,
anam, is masculine, the word for ‘mind’, intinn, is feminine; in German the
word for ‘moon’ is masculine, der Mond, and that for ‘sun’ is feminine, die
Sonne. In Romance languages it is the other way around, consider la luna ‘the
moon’ and il sole ‘the sun’ in Italian. It is obvious that this kind of gender has
nothing to do with biological gender but just refers to the manner in which the
nouns are declined and the form of the article they take in various cases such as
the nominative and genitive singular and in the plural. Why the words for ‘soul’
and ‘mind’ or for ‘sun’ and ‘moon’ should belong to different classes in this
respect is an accident of history and for the native speakers at any one point in
time, the matter is completely arbitrary.
The discussion so far has been about the nature of morphology in certain
languages. But a brief crosslinguistic examination reveals that not every
language has a full morphology. For instance, Russian, Irish and German are
much richer in this respect than English although this language is related to the
others, albeit at different time depths. The question to consider is how
morphology arises and how it recedes.
Morphology arises basically through words merging with each other. A
word becomes semantically bleached, i.e. it loses clear meaning, and becomes
attached to another word – this is the stage of a clitic. After some time a clitic
may further lose semantic contours and become inseparable from the lexical
Raymond Hickey Morphology Page 3 of 24
word it co-occurs with. Then one speaks of an inflection. This process can be
carried further and this inflection may later be lost – usually through phonetic
blurring – in which case there is a reduction in morphology and the language as a
whole becomes analytic in type (this has happened to English in its history).
Such a series of developments over a long stretch of time – at least several
centuries – is called a typological cycle.
Typological cycle
Stage A
A starting point for a language with few if any endings
Stage B
Some words attach to others and lose their
independent meaning (cliticisation). Example: Old
English -lice ‘like’ becomes attached to stems, e.g.
sothlice ‘truly’, i.e. truth-like.
Stage C