English Morphology (part I) : The Minimal Units of Meaning

The “Mophemes: The Minimal Units of Meaning” is an excerpt of An Introduction of Language, 2003, seventh edition. This chapter starts with a perception of word as the most basic unit of meaning. Then a pop-up question about part of words such prefix emerges. In the beginning, we can see an example from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass about prefix un- which means “not” and it explains that English has negative meaning from un- as prefix not suffix. Then there is phon as the following example that gives additional meaning to some words which is “pertaining to sound”.

Since “Morphology: The Words of Language” is the theme of this excerpt, we should know first that Morphology has its meaning. Etymologically, Morphology is divided into two morphemes which are morph + ology. The suffix means “science of” or “branch of knowledge concerning”. In conclusion, morphology means the study of the internal structure of words and of the rules by which words are formed. On the other hand, we get morpheme as the linguistic term for the most elemental unit of grammatical form. It is as a result of several distinctive meanings of some words.

A morpheme is the smallest unit of a word that cannot be analyzed further. Thus, a morpheme may be represented by a single sound, a single syllable, or two or three or four syllables.

Sound units combine to form morphemes, then combine into form words, finally combine into form phrases and sentences. This changes are caused by the decomposition of words into morphemes illustrates one of the fundamental properties of human language which is called discreteness.



Knowledge of language especially knowledge of morphology in this case has two components that consist of knowledge of the individual morphemes and knowledge of the rules that combine them. There are free and bound morphemes, the first one is the particular morphemes which can stand alone, and the second one is the particular morphemes that must be attached to a host morpheme. Bound morphemes usually include the affixes that are divided into prefixes and suffixes. The first one is the morphemes that occur before other morphemes, for instance, un-(unfair, unusual), pre- (preschool, pre-paid), and bi- (bipolar, bicycle). As the contrary, suffixes is the morphemes that follow other morphemes (after), for instance, -ing (playing, wearing), -er (teacher, player), -ist (finalist, geologist), and –ly (nicely, freely).


There are morphemes inserted into other morphemes which are called infixes. One special thing about infixes in English is that one can only infix full word obscenities into another word, usually into adjectives or adverbs. The most well-known infix in America is the word fuckin’and its euphemisms, such as friggin, freakin, flippin, and fuggin. While in Britain, a common infix is bloody, an obscene term in British English and its euphemism, such as bloomin.


In some languages, morphemes that are attached to another morpheme both initially and finally called circumfixes. In other times, it is called discontinuous morphemes. Below is an easy example of circumfixing in German.

Past Participle of regular verbs is formed by adding prefix ge- and suffix –t to the verb root.

Lieb “love” produces geliebt, “loved” (or “beloved”, when used as an adjective).

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