Why is Morphology studied?

What you need to know before understanding why morphology is studied:


Key definitions

  1. Morphemes: The smallest units of language that carry meaning or function.
  2. Free morphemes: Words that can stand alone and still make sense.
  3. Bound morphemes: Morphemes that cannot stand alone, they need to be attached to a free morpheme in order to be a proper, meaningful word.
  4. Affixes: A morpheme attached to something else.
  5. Root: The core of the word. What’s left when affixes are taken away.
  6. Syntax: The study of sentence structure.
  7. Vowel Harmony: The first vowel of the suffix depends on the last vowel of the word that the suffix is being attached to.


Aims of Morphology

  • Identification of morphemes
  • Study meaning of morphemes
  • Assign meaning to parts of words


*-ing on words such as jumping, running, borrowing, boxing.

  1. Take the first example ‘jumping’
  2. Split it into two morphemes: one free morpheme (jump) and one bound morpheme (-ing)
  3. Once you identify that -ing is a bound morpheme for this word, we know that is the same for other words such as the examples given above (running, borrowing, boxing).

The purposes of studying morphology


The internal structure of words and the segmentation into different kinds of morphemes is essential to the two basic purposes or morphology:

  1. the creation of new words and
  2. the modification of existing words.[1] We create new words out of old ones all the time. Here you can read more about how word creation is studied.

Morphology vs. Syntax

Grammar covers both morphology and syntax

  1. Morphology: study of word forms
  2. Syntax: study of sentence structure

Morphology and syntax are, however, closely related, and there is often an argument as to whether learning morphology leads to the acquisition of syntax, or if syntax provides the features and structures upon which morphology operates.


It is possible to have the syntax right, but the morphology wrong

Example using children’s language

  • Children will usually use the correct syntactic constructions (Usually SVO), but use the wrong affix or insert one where it’s not needed
  • `I felled over` vs `I fell over`
  • Morphology is irregular: the past tense inflection `-ed` is found in words such as `walked`, `danced` and `jumped` but is not applied to all past tense constructions

This highlights a major difference between morphology and syntax:

Syntax follows strict rules, whereas morphology is often inconsistent with many exceptions to the rules.

[1] Fasold, R. and Connor-Linton, J., (2006). An Introduction to Language and Linguistics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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