Morphology - an introduction

In this lesson, students explore word morphology. Morphology is an area of language study concerned with how words are formed. While syntax is about the larger structures formed when words are put together, morphology is about the structure within words.

Goals

  • Identify complex words, prefixes and suffixes.
  • Distinguish between lexemes (dictionary words) and different forms of the same word.

Lesson plan

Some words are simple in form: we can’t break them down into smaller meaningful parts. Examples are apple, bright and fly. Other words are complex:

  • whiteboard (white + board)
  • flying (fly + -ing)
  • unkindness (un- + kind + -ness)

Notice that some of the smaller parts can be used on their own as words (white, board, fly, kind), while other parts add meaning but can’t be used on their own (-ing, un-, -ness).

The parts that can’t be used on their own are called prefixes (if they come at the start of a word, like un-) or suffixes (if they come at the end, like -ing and -ness).

Activity 1

In this activity, ask students to look at the list of words on the first slide and pick out the words that are complex. Can they break them down into meaningful parts?

Answers: sunshine (sun + shine), sleepwalker (sleep + walk + er), unhappy (un + happy), rebuild (re + build), laugh (laugh + ing)

On the second slide, there are some further questions. Ask students which parts of the words can be used on their own. For those which cannot be used alone, ask students to label them as prefixes or suffixes.

Answers: sun, shine, sleep, walk, happy, build, laugh can all be used on their own. The prefixes are un- and re-. The suffixes are -er and -ing.

Activity 2

Ask students to look at the words on the first slide. Are they different words or the same word?

It depends what we mean by ‘word’! In one everyday sense, they are all different words. But in another, important sense they are all different forms of the same word, hesitate (which belongs to the word class of verb). In this sense what we mean by ‘word’ is a dictionary word (or lexeme) – an item of vocabulary.

Suppose you have read the sentence He was hesitating, and you don’t know the meaning of hesitating. If you want to check in a dictionary, you will need to look up hesitate – you won’t find hesitating. Or think about someone who is not a native speaker of English but is learning the language. Knowing the four forms of hesitate listed on the slide would only count as knowing one item of vocabulary, not four.

Now ask students to look at the words on the second slide. Are they different words in the sense of vocabulary items?

These items are all related: they all contain the element organise (with some adjustments of spelling). But they are all considered different words in the sense that they add to our vocabulary. For example, organise is a verb, whereas organiser is a noun (describing a person who organises) and disorganisation is a noun (referring to a condition in which order has been disrupted).

Some of these words can appear in more than one form (e.g. organiserorganisers; organiseorganises, organised, organising).

Activity 3

For this activity, ask students to look at the sentence on the slide and answer the questions.

Answers:

1. There are 13 different dictionary words: I, think, tease, tiger, be, unwise, because, a, once, and, barely, escape, alive.

2. The words teasing and teased are forms of the same word, the verb tease. The words tiger and tigers are forms of the same word, the noun tiger.

Two branches of morphology

Morphology can be split into two distinct branches: inflectional morphology and derivational morphology. The two branches deal with the different aspects of word structure we discussed above:

  • Inflectional morphology deals with different forms of the same word which are used in different grammatical patterns (e.g. hesitates, hesitated, hesitating). It relates more closely to the grammar of English.
  • Derivational morphology looks at how related but different words are built up (e.g. organise, organiser, organisation, disorganise). It relates more to the vocabulary of English: the structure of existing words, and the creation of new ones (like smartphone or blog).

In other resources we look at each of the branches of morphology in more detail.

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