The morpheme - An approach to its meaning and function

Term Paper, 2004

14 Pages, Grade: 2,0




I. Introduction

II. Definitions of the morpheme
i. The Morpheme – A general overview of definitions
ii. Problems of the traditional approach

III. Allomorphy and its implications for the notion of morphemes
i. What is allomorphy?
ii. Phonological and lexical conditioning
iii. Morphological Conditioning and the idea of recurring partials

IV. Conclusion


- ARONOFF, MARC; Word Formation in Generative Grammar, 1976, Cambridge, The MIT Press, Massachusetts and London, England.
- BAUER, LAURIE; Introducing Linguistic Morpholog y , 2nd edition, 2003, Edinburgh University Press.
- BLOOMFIELD, LEONARD; Language, 1933, New York, George Allen & Unwin LTD.
- HOCKETT, CHARLES F.; A course in modern linguistics, 1958, New York, The Macmillan Company New York.
- HOCKETT, CHARLES F.; Refurbishing our foundations, 1987, Amsterdam/Philadekphia, John Benjamins Publishing Company.
- JOOS, MARTIN.; Readings in linguistics, 2nd edition, 1958, New York, American Council of Learned Societies.
- HARRIS, ZELLIG ; From morpheme to utterance, 1946
- HOCKETT, CHARLES ; Problems of morphemic analysis, 1947
- MATTHEWS, PETER .H.; The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics, 1997, Oxford, Oxford University Press
- MATTHEWS, PETER.H.; Morphology – An introduction to the theory of word-structure, 1974, London, Cambridge University Press.
- O’GRADY, W; DOBROVOLSKY, M; KATAMBA, F; Contemporary Linguistics – An introduction, 3rd Edition, 1996, Longman.
- PEARSALL, JUDY (Editor); The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 10th Edition, 1999, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
- ROBINS, ROBERT.H.; General Linguistics – An introductory survey, 2nd edition, 1971, London, Longman
- SPENCER, ANDREW; Morphological Theory, 1991, Oxford, Basil Blackwell.

I. Introduction

When studying linguistics, students are confronted with a high degree of terminology right on from the beginning of their studies. One might assume that understanding it should not really be a problem if one considers a standard dictionary or inquires other scholars in order to find an answer to one’s lack of knowledge. However, in some cases it is simply not that easy. In the following we will take a look at the notion of the morpheme. The problem is that several different definitions exist and scholars have to be 100% aware of the meaning when confronted with linguistic literature. The Oxford Concise English Dictionary (OCED) claims the morpheme to be: “A meaningful morphological unit of a language that cannot be further divided” (OCED 1999:926) But is this a sufficient definition of the term? Are morphemes really always meaningful units? In order to understand the different opinions scholars have when referring to the morpheme, one has to have a good look at their different point of views of the field of morphology. Some scholars consider a morpheme-based approach to be the correct way of dealing with morphemes, in which they either emphasize meaning or grammatical function of morphemes, whereas others rather identify themselves with the word-form based approach, by which they entirely reject the significance of morphemes for the meaning of the sign, while concentrating on word-forms. In the following we will take a closer look at several definitions of the morpheme, established by scholars of different diachronical environments in order to find a solution to this problem and a more or less concrete definition. In the second part, the importance of the morpheme with reference to the concept of allomorphy will be examined to understand how they function and how they are realized.

II. Definitions of the morpheme

i. The Morpheme – A general overview of definitions

Ever since the term morpheme was introduced, a high number of different linguistic scholars have had a critical look at this phenomenon, which appears to be so important to the field of morphology. Even though it has been investigated deeply throughout the past century, scholar’s opinions still differ according to their definition of the morpheme as well as to its importance to linguistics in general. An example of discussions on the issue of the morpheme as early as 1896 is R.J. Lloyd’s definition of the morpheme as the most important constituent of a given word-form, such as root, suffix and prefix (cf. R.J. Lloyd 1896: 615). In the course of time, definitions have changed quite frequently. Especially in the early 20th century linguists had a lot of difficulties in coming to an agreement about one gerneral definition and this has, at least to a small extent, remained until today.

Celebrated as one of the most important scholars of early 20th century’s linguistics, Leonard Bloomfield was one of the linguists that “foreshadowed the decade of the morpheme” to quote C.F. Hockett (1987: 81). Bloomfield claimed that words[1] can be separated into smaller constituents, which function together as the basis of the word’s meaning. Although this happens to be true, his definition of the morpheme appears to be quite different to the one of recent scholars and has only little resemblance to recent definitons. He defines it as follows:

“A linguistic form which bears no partial phonetic-semantic resemblance to any other form [...] A morpheme can be described phonetically, since it consists of one or more phonemes, but its meaning cannot be analyzed within the scope of our science.” “Any morpheme can be fully described (apart from its meaning) as a set of one or more phonemes in a certain arrangement.”

(Bloomfield 1933: 161 & 167)

This means that Bloomfield did not regard the notion of the morpheme as a significant element with semantic meaning. Hence, he sticks to Lloyd’s opinion, that simply considers morphemes as the constituents of a word-form. Bloomfield prefers to call the meaningful unit sememe (defined as the meaning of the morpheme). According to his point of view, linguistic forms such as dog, house, straw-, -y, and -ing would be seen as morphemes and may be used in morphology to examine the structure of word-forms and where they come from (Bloomfield 1933: 162).

Charles F. Hockett breaks with Bloomfield’s opinion, as he makes a clear distinction between the morpheme as a an abstract unit and the phonemic shape which represents it. He also attaches great importance to the term representation, by emphasizing the importance of morphemes as “the smallest individually meaningful elements in the utterances of a language” (Hocket 1958a: 123) and, thus, regards them as abstract meaningful entities. He gives account for the sent and received information understood by the speakers by the function of morphemes. Nevertheless, he himself realized that this kind of definition poses some problems which we will consider later on in the following chapters. Another very interesting feature of Hockett’s analysis is that he differentiates between two types of morphemes. To be more precise, he includes the idea of suprasegmental in addtion to segmental morphemes which deal with the significance of intonation and stress patterns for the utterance’s meaning (cf. Hocket 1958a: 168). In today’s linguistics these phenonmenae are mainly restricted to the field of pragmatics, hence we will not go into them any further.


[1] Due to definining difficulties we will account for word in this paper as follows: “the smallest of the units that make up a sentence, and marked as such in writing.” (The Oxford Concise Dictionary of Linguistics OCDE 1997: 404)

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The morpheme - An approach to its meaning and function
University of Cologne  (Englisches Seminar)
English Morphology
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English, Morphology
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Carsten Krumdiek (Author), 2004, The morpheme - An approach to its meaning and function, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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