An Introduction to Morphology

Today I’d like to examine the branch of linguistics known as morphology, the study of the structures of languages. All languages can be split into two types of words: contents words and functions words. Content words are words that contain semantic content and contribute to the meaning of the sentence they are in. This category of words includes nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs. The set of content words is open, meaning it is constantly being changed: older words are phased out of use and new words are added as the need arises. For example, the word “tweet” is now used to describe a social media post due to Twitter becoming popular. On the other hand, function words convey no semantic meaning and only serve to express a structural or grammatical relationship in a sentence. Function words include pronouns, determiners, and conjunctions. The set of function words is closed, meaning it remains unchanged.

Languages can be further divided into morphemes, meaningful morphological units that cannot be further divided. For example, the word softly contains two morphemes, “soft” and “ly”. You may notice that one of these morphemes can stand alone (soft), and the other cannot (ly). Morphemes that can stand alone are called free morphemes, while morphemes that are not free-standing are called bound morphemes. Free morphemes can either be open class content words or closed class function words. Bound morphemes can either be affixes or roots (i.e. “-ceive”). Affixes can either be derivational, meaning they change the meaning of the word they are attached to (i.e happy → unhappy), or inflectional, meaning they have no effect on the word’s meaning (i.e. dog → dogs).

Understanding the basics of morphology can be extremely beneficial to mastering a language. Once you recognize the basic building blocks of a form of communication, you can use them to both learn faster and understand others more clearly. While it is vital for all linguists to have a strong understanding of the basics of morphology, I recommend everyone get a general understanding of them in order to improve their language studies and their comprehension skills.

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