A morpheme is the smallest possible unit of grammatical meaning. It is not the same as a syllable. It can be a single letter eg “s” in “boys” (signifies the plural)

Derivational Morphemes:

  • Suffix: end of word; usually changes class
    • tradition + al = traditional (n – adj)
    • fascinate + ing = fascinating (vb – adj)
    • faithful + ly = faithfully (adj – adv)
  • Prefix: beginning of word; does not usually change class
    • un + happy = unhappy (adj – adj)
    • re +write = rewrite (vb – vb)

Inflectional Morphemes:

  • No change in word class  – suffix to show tense, plural etc.
    • animal+s
    • talk+ed
  • Suffixes and prefixes are grouped together as affixes.Morphemes can also be root/stem (the base of the word).  They can also be divided into free and bound morphemes.  A free morpheme can stand alone (eg man, happy, faith), whereas a bound morpheme cannot (eg un, pre, ed, ing).  All affixes are bound morphemes, root morphemes are usually free (but not absolutely always).

Writing about morphology at A Level:

Morphology is of most use in describing non-standard usage.

For example, children often over-use morphemes when they regularise irregular words: mans instead of men or eated instead of ate.  You may want to talk about the order of acquisition of morphemes, as in Brown’s research. Also of use in spoken acquisition is calculating MLU in terms of morphemes rather than words (but do specify this is the system you’re using, and be consistent).

Or in studying language variation, you may want to describe a dialect which uses “I goes” instead of the standard “I go”. In this case, you’d want to talk about the morpheme usually used to indicate third person present tense.

Derivational morphology is also obviously useful in language change, in discussing the construction of some new words. This is most apparent with affixation (e.g. the suffix -gate to designate a scandal), but it may also help to clarify the construction of a blend or a backformation.