The importance of morphology: English Language as a prime example

Aras Ahmed

By Aras Ahmed Mhamad:


This article is an opening phase to introduce the study of morphology and difficulties in finding the exact definition that fully explains the term. It further investigates the importance of morphemes as a major component of words with reference to the differences between derivational and inflectional affixes.


Morphology as a major level of linguistic analysis plays a considerable role in producing and building thousands of English words. English derives a huge number of words on a daily basis from all the languages of the world and morphology gives you an idea about the source of the words with rules and regulations on how to form new words.

On Morphology

The human mind is programmed to produce hundreds and millions of words, phrases, and clauses; unlimited and unsaid ideas, and novel sentences “language creates unreal worlds and allows us to talk about non-existing things” (1). Even a child might utter a sentence that has never said before. Yet, it is seems impossible for a person to understand, generate, and use the function of each word because, apart from the words that a person knows and are stored in his/her mental lexicon, there might be words that have never been heard before by the same person. Language is a subject and is on a process of continuous change.

MORPHOLOGY (1)“Language is infinitely modifiable and extendable. Words go on changing meanings and new words continue to be added to language with the changing needs of the community using it.”(2)   Language consists of infinite and countless words and word-structure is a major dimension in morphological analysis. Whether definitions work out without further detail is still questionable. Morphology, for instance, is defined by most linguists and morphologists as the analysis of word structure. Obviously, words have meanings but what about words like, a, an, the. Do they really have meanings or are they just grammatical functions?

In science, the term morphology has come to be used to refer to the branch of biology which studies the form and structure of plants and animals. Linguistically, morphology deals with morphemes and how they operate in the structure of words. Further in this regard, the term morphology consists of two word elements, morph- which means ‘form’ and –ology which means ‘the study of’. It appeared in the 19th century for the first time.

“Morphology is the subfield of linguistics that studies the internal structure of words and the relationship among words”. (3) There are two terms in this definition that need to be discussed: words and relationship among words. It is often expected to face difficulties in identifying a word within a phrase or a sentence because there must be a space between one word and another, for example, Jane is my mother-in-law. Is mother-in-law one word or three words? The answer is clear; it is one word because it represents one entity. Similarly, a word has to have the ability to stand alone and give meaning.

Also, the relationship among words sometimes seems to be difficult to recognize. “Words are not the most elemental sound-meaning units; some words are structurally complex. The most elemental grammatical units in a language are morphemes”. (4)  Should we analyze the rapport between words on the level of meaning or sound? For instance, it is raining. The word ‘it’ simply means the sky but does it reflect its sound? The answer is no. In essence, the word “it” is dissociable from the meaning it conveys. But, discreteness, which is one of the properties of human language, and it distinguishes humans from other species, allows humans to “combine sound units to form morphemes, morphemes combine to form words, and words combine to form larger units- phrases and sentences”. (5) As a result, morphology is the grammar of words, and humans can create immeasurable words but they cannot understand all the words. That is why the above discussed definition does not meet all the criteria in defining the term morphology with its relation to word structure.

Morphology is crucially connected to syntax and word formation is the most highly engaged subject in morphology. That is why the majority of the definitions of morphology concentrate on word structure. Added to that, words are the smallest units of syntax.


It is worth conferring the concept of morphemes and how they function in the formation of words. Morpheme is the “minimal distinctive unit of grammar and the central concern of morphology… the smallest functioning unit in the composition of words”. (6)

Each word is composed of one, two or more morphemes to form one meaningful entity, i.e. a simple word like, pen has one morpheme and can stand alone by itself to give meaning, and this is known as free morpheme. But when a suffix like, -s is added it becomes pens, which contains two different morphemes, the noun pen and the –s of plural. The plural marker -s cannot stand alone to give meaning and it is never a word by itself and it has to be attached to other free morphemes to have a grammatically correct meaning and this is known as bound morpheme.

In the same way, impression consists of three morphemes: press is a free morpheme, while im- and -ion are bound morphemes. In addition, all the words can be morphemes but not all the morphemes can mean words. Some words create ambiguity, for instance, “carpet is a single morpheme. The words car and pet are independent morphemes in themselves, but the word carpet has nothing to do with the meanings of car and pet. Carpet is a single meaningful unit by itself”. (7) Consequently, morphemes “are the smallest units of language that combine both a form (the way they sound) and a meaning (what they mean)”. (8) Free morphemes are independent words whereas bound morphemes are dependents though some of them have fixed meanings, like un- which means “not” all the time. Accordingly, words that have one morpheme are called mono-morpheme, e.g., member. Words that have more than one morpheme are called polymorpheme, e.g. governmental.

Derivational and Inflectional Affixes

All affixes are bound and they are of two types: derivational morphemes and inflectional morphemes. Morphology “is concerned with two quite different phenomena: derivation and inflection. Derivation has to do with the way morphemes get attached as affixes to existing lexical forms or stems in the process of word formation”.(9) While inflectional morphology “does not create new words but adapts existing words so that they operate effectively in sentences. It is not a process of lexical innovation but of grammatical function. (10) The differences between them are many, yet the most important ones are as follows:

Derivation Inflection
1. Many words contain several derivational affixes. e.g., unkindlyKind is the root. While un- and -ly are derivational affixes. (11) 1. There is only one inflectional affix in each word except for plural -s and s of possessive. e.g., cats’ cheeseCats’ is both plural and possessive in meaning.
2. They never close off the word. e.g. playful 2. They close off the word. e.g. plays
3. They can be found in dictionaries. 3. They cannot be found in dictionaries.
4. Derivational is irrelevant to syntax. 4. Inflectional is relevant to syntax.
5. It is optional. 5. It is obligatory.
6. Expresses a new concept. 6. Expresses the same concept as the base.
7. Derivational meanings are relatively concrete 7. Inflectional categories express a relatively abstract meaning.
8. Derivational is semantically irregular. 8. Inflectional is semantically regular.
9. The meanings are relevant to the meaning of the base. 9. The meanings are less relevant to the meaning of the base.
10. Derivation is expressed at the periphery of words. 10. Inflection is expressed close to the root.

In summary, morphology is the scientific study of the shapes and forms of the words and the study of the internal structure of words and the process of word formation. The subject and the topic of morphology facilitates in several ways to master the language including spelling, vocabulary, fluency, word recognition, pronunciation, structure of complex words, text comprehension, the origin of words as “English is a particularly  fascinating language to study, because its history of borrowing from other languages has left it with an enormous collection of morphemes, not all of which still have meanings that are recognizable without recourse to a dictionary” (12) and so on. Thus the language seems natural and spontaneous.


  1. Hurrford, James Semantics: a Course book (2007:60) (2nd Edition) Cambridge University Press
  2. Jindal D.V. An Introduction to Linguistics (2007:3), (2nd Edition): Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi
  3. Akmajian A., Demers R., Farmer A., Harnish R. An Introduction to Language and Communication (1997:12), (4th Edition): The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, London, England
  4. Fromkin V., Rodman R., Hyams N. An Introduction to Language(2003:107), (7th Edition): Thomson Heinle
  5. Fromkin V., Rodman R., Hyams N. An Introduction to Language(2003:77), (7th Edition): Thomson Heinle
  6. Crystal D. A Dictionary of Linguistics and Phonetics (2003:300), (5th Edition): Blackwell Publishing
  7. Jindal D.V. An Introduction to Linguistics (2007:77), (2nd Edition): Prentice Hall of India, New Delhi
  8. W. Fasold R. An Introduction to Language and Linguistics (2006:61), (1st Edition): Cambridge University Press
  9. H.G. Widdowson Linguistics (1996:46), (1st Edition): Oxford University Press
  10. H.G. Widdowson Linguistics (1996:47), (1st Edition): Oxford University Press
  11. S. Falik J. Linguistics and Language (1978:30), (2nd Edition): john Wiley and Sons / New York/ Santa Barbara
  12. W. Alison, B. Aileen Projects In Linguistics (2006:69), (2nd Edition): Oxford University Press Inc.

Aras Ahmed Mhamad is a freelance writer and translator. He is the Founder and Deputy Editor of SMART magazine, an independent English magazine that focuses on ‘Literature, Language, Society’. He is the Top Student of College of Languages at the Department of English/ University of Human Development, 2012.

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