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Comparison of Terms in Phonology and Morphology



Study of phonology morphology
Smallest Unit phoneme morpheme
Variant allophone allomorph
Actual Speech phone morph
Transcription phonemic symbols / / phonetic symbols [ ] morphemic symbols { }


The Morpheme

Let us first state what a morpheme is not: it is not a word, nor is it a syllable. Like the phoneme, the morpheme is frequently an abstraction, covering a range of possible variant forms (or allomorphs). But here, the abstraction is a unit of meaning, not a unit of sound: a morpheme isthe smallest unit of meaning inlanguage.

Lexical and syntactic meaning. Immediately, however, we encounter trouble with the word “meaning”, which itself has many meanings. We shall examine the question of meaning in much more detail in chapter 9, but here let us stipulate that there are two basic kinds of morphological meaning: lexical, or semantic, and syntactic, or structural.

Lexical meaning. Lexical, or semantic, meaning is the type we ordinarily intend when we use theword “meaning”. Lexical meaning has a sense of content or reference about it; morphemes having lexical meaning are listed in dictionaries or thesauruses. Lexical meaning is then further divided into denotative meaning (ordinary usage, common, widespread) and connotative meaning (private or localized, not widespread). Thus, the usual lexical denotation of “apple” is: a red, yellow, or green fruit from the tree Pyrus malus. But the connotations may range all the way from pleasant (tastes good, supposedly keeps the doctor away) to unpleasant (symbol of strife, temptation, destruction). A morpheme that has more lexical than syntactic meaning is called a lexical morpheme.

Syntactic meaning. The other principal kind of meaning, syntactic, has less to do with content or reference and more to do with what we might call internal traffic directing. A morpheme that has syntactic meaning – a syntactic, or structural, morpheme – tends to direct other, more lexical morphemes, to signal relationships within a syntactic unit, to indicate what is subject and what is predicate, for instance.

Frequently, a syntactic morpheme is attached to a lexical one, in which case the attachment is called an inflection. The plural allomorphs are inflections, as are the tense markers, possession markers, and comparison markers. Such inflections as these do not have much lexical meaning themselves; the {ed} that signals the past tense in English does not have the content-meaning of a lexical morpheme like the word “apple”. But the inflections are necessary to show how one lexical morpheme is related to another, as in the phrase “John’s book”, where the possessive inflection {'s}[1] indicates that the book belongs to John. Similarly, tense signals a relationship: the word “pour”, which lacks an inflection, indicates action going on right now, in the present, whereas the word “poured”, composed of the lexical morpheme {pour} plus the inflection {ed}, signals a condition that has already occurred in the past. The relationship here is of time rather than of possession. Just as frequently, however, a syntactic morpheme is not attached to a lexical one, but occurs alone. Separate forms that primarily serve a syntactic rather than a lexical function are called function words, or sometimes operators. Examples of such words include “and”, “there”, “because”, “or”, “but”, “so”, “than”. Like inflections, these words are low in lexical meaning but high in traffic-directing or relationship-signaling function. The operator {and}, for example, primarily serves to connect two or more lexical words in a way that shows the two to have equivalent weight: “cats and dogs”, “red, white, and blue”. (Note that the connection is not “cats and dog” or “red, white, and cow”. Like other function words, “and” does not mean much, as we ordinarily use the word “mean”, but it does much in those phrases. If we changed “and” to “or” in each phrase, the relationship signaled among the words would be quite different.

Often it seems nearly impossible to distinguish lexical from syntactic meaning; there is much overlap between the two. Thus, almost any given morpheme may be classed as lexical or as syntactic, depending on how it is functioning in an utterance.


Morphology, or the study of morphemes, can be most usefully subdivided into two types of analysis. One type, called synchronic morphology, investigates morphemes in a single dimension of time – any particular time, past or present. Essentially, synchronic morphology is a linear analysis, asking what are the lexical and syntactic components of words, and how do the components add, subtract, or rearrange themselves in various contexts.

Synchronic morphology is not concerned with the word’s history in our language. If we bring in a historical dimension, however, and ask how a word’s contemporary usage might be different from its first recorded usage, then we are moving into a field of historical linguistics called etymology, or diachronic (two-dimensional time) morphology.

Anyone concerned with a full examination of a word’s or a morpheme’s meanings will, of course, pursue both a synchronic and a diachronic inquiry. A complete morphological analysis will require us to check the word’s current phonemic and morphemic structure as well as its past and present lexical meanings. Obviously, we can investigate historical alterations simultaneously with a synchronic look at the morphemic components.[2] For purposes of discussion here, however, we will treat the two branches of morphology as separate entities.

Synchronic morphology. A synchronic investigation is asking, basically, what kinds of morphemes are combining in which sorts of ways to form a word. Often, a synchronic analysis of morphemes begins to spill over into an analysis of syntax, for morphology in general often becomes the sharedterritory of word meaning and sentence structure. We will try here, however, to keep our analysis of morphemes separate from syntax as much as possible.

Figure 5.1

Date: 2016-04-22; view: 1271

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