Basic questions to ask about morphology

      When we study the morphology of  a language, that is, the structure of its words, there are two basic questions that we always need to be asking ourselves. Think of these questions especially when analyzing an affix.

  1. What is its meaning?
  2. How is that meaning expressed?

Question (a) has to do with semantics. It includes other questions, such as:

          (1)   What meanings are being expressed?

          (2)   Are these meanings lexical or grammatical?

Questions (b) has to do with phonology and grammar. it includes other questions, such as:

(1)  What is the phonological material (e.g., the string of segments) that represents this meaning.

(2)   Where is this material located with respect to the stem (prefixed, suffixed, etc.)?

(3)   is it always the same on every stem, or does it vary depending on context?

(4)   What category of words is affected by this morphological process (nouns, verbs, etc.)?


Inflectional versus derivational

Two basic questions in morphology:

(1)      a.   What is its meaning?

  1. How is that meaning expressed?

DERIVATIONAL MORPHOLOGY  takes one word and changes into another, creating new lexical entries. In the clearest cases, it creates a word of another syntactic category. For example, the suffix –ness changes adjectives into abstract nouns, as in fat-ness, dry-ness, and sad-ness. The suffix –(e)r changes verbs into nouns, as in teach-er, act-or, play-er, far-mer, etc. the suffix –ify changes nouns or adjectives into verbs, as in class-ify, pur-ify, beaut-ify, etc.

(2)   -(e)s      third person singular present (on verbs)

        -(e)d     past (on verbs)

      the essential difference between inflection and derivation is whether the addition of an affix creates a new word or just another form of the same word. There are three other important differences between inflection and derivation. One concerns PRODUCTIVITY: inflectional morphology is very productive, while derivational morphology usually is not. English past tense marking is inflectional and so it is very productive—when new words are coined, their past tense is automatically available in the grammar. For example, English speaker added –(e)d to the new verb digitize to form digitized without blinking an eye.

      Derivational affixes, on the other hand, often cannot be used with such generally. Indeed, they often cannot be used even on words that have been in the language for centuries. Consider the following examples of derivational affixes; some work and others fail. The ones that fail do so not because of any general rule, but simply because the resulting words don’t happen to exist.

(3)           Good                      Bad

          Same-ness              *different-ness

          Weak-ness              *strong-ness

          Mad-ness                *sane-ness

One simply has to memorize which derived words contain –ness and which do not. This memory load is hardly ever necessary with inflection.

       Of course, some derivational affixes are more productive than others. The suffix –er is relatively productive; word ‘players’ know that practically any verb can be turned into a noun by adding –(e)r. So, we aren’t dealing with a hard and fast distinction, but in general inflection is more productive than derivation.

       Another difference is that derivational affixes often have lexical meaning, while inflectional affixes usually have grammatical meaning. For example, one meaning of the derivational suffix –er can be expressed ‘a person who …’, but the meaning of the inflectional –(e)d is best expressed with the technical term  ‘past tense’.

      The third difference between inflection and derivation is that different inflected forms of a word can usually be useful organized into a type of chart called a PARADIGM.

(4)                                  Singular         Plural

          First person             do                do

          Second person         do                do

          Their person            does             do

This cross-classifying of forms in paradigms is characteristic of inflectional morphology, but not of derivational morphology. Derivational morphology groups together into pairs, like march and marcher, farm and farmer.

       The differences between inflection and derivation are summarized in the following chart?

Changes one lexical entry
into another
Changes syntactic
Virtually total
Partially at best
Organized in paradigms
Type of meaning
Usually lexical

The  importance of paradigm for inflectional morphology

Now we know about paradigms, we can look at morphology from a new perspective. Agglutinative languages have morphemes arranged in a sequence like beads on a string, with clear morpheme cuts between them. Position class charts often provide a convention way of summarizing their morphology, focusing on the relative ordering of the pieces of a word.

       However, this analogy to beads on  a string often breaks down. IRREGULAR (or SUPPLETIVE) verbs, which are found in most languages, cause it problems. In English, there is a large class of verbs which do not form their past tense using –(e)d.

(7)      Present                   past

          Sing                       sang

          Think                      thought

          Have                      had

          See                        saw

          Go                         went

          Is                          was

Good consistent morpheme cuts are difficult at best, and there is little consistency from one verb to the next. Position class charts are useless for describing these verbs forms. But, if we think in terms of paradigms and grammatical categories we can at least make some sense of the situation; all verbs have a paradigm which includes both present and past tense forms.

 Grammatical categories and inflectional features

These essence of the word and paradigm perspective is its focus on GRAMMATICAL CATEGORIES, like person, number, and tense.. what exactly is grammatical category? Grammatical categories are sets of abstract elements (like singular and plural) which are MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE. Each grammatical category has only a small and fixed number of elements, that is, grammatical categories are closed classes. Thus, a grammatical category is a small, closed class of mutually exclusive grammatical properties.

       How do we add this concept to our formal grammar? We do so with FEATURES. For example, to represent that a word is singular, we might assign it the feature [-plural]. To represent that a word is third person, we might assign it the feature [3 person]. In these examples, ‘plural’ and ‘person’ are the names of the features; ‘-‘ and ‘3’ are their VALUES.

       Many features are BINARY; they have only two values, usually ‘+’ and ‘-‘. Often this is because they represent grammatical categories that contain only two elements. For example, number (singular versus plural) is often represented with the binary feature ( ± plural).

        The inflectional category of person is like this; it normally has three choices: first, second, and third person. One way to represent this formally is with a single feature that has three values: [1 person], [2 person], and [3 person]. Another is to use two binary features, such as [±me] and [± you]. these work as follows:

(9)      first person              [+me, -you]

          Second person         [-me, +you]

          Third person            [-me, -you]