Morphology – Edmond Dants0000 – Feb 12


Well first, I want to talk about morphology so you have something to compare it to when I talk about nonconcatenative morphology which I think is really cool. Concatenative morphology is where you string morphemes together to form words. A morpheme is the smallest semantically meaningful unit in a language, and they come in bound or free varieties, and are derivational or inflectional.

Free morphemes are morphemes that can be used as words by themselves. Examples of this are like ‘tree’ or ‘dog’ or ‘try’.

Bound morphemes are morphemes that have to be attached to a root (which can be either a bound or free morpheme itself). Examples are ‘un’, ‘non’, ‘in’, ‘s’, ‘ed’ etc. There are also two subclasses of bound morphemes which are derivational and inflectional. Derivational means it changes the semantic meaning of the word (e.g. adding ‘dis’ to belief changes the meaning to be the opposite), while inflectional changes the tense or number without changing the meaning (e.g. ‘wait’ + ‘ed’ becomes past tense waited, or ‘dog’ + ‘s’ becomes plural ‘dogs’).

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So we can see in this image the root/free morpheme ‘nation’ which has the bound morpheme ‘-al’ added to it to form the adjective ‘national’. This is further modified by the bound morpheme ‘-iz(e)’ which forms the verb nationalize, and with the addition of another bound morpheme ‘-ation’ the noun ‘nationalization’ is formed. These are all derivational as they change the semantic meaning of the word.

There further exists allomorphs​ which are morphemes that differ in pronouncing but mean the same thing. The classic example of this is in english is the plural morpheme ‘s’ (also written ‘es’) which can be pronounced like ‘s’ like in cats, ‘z’ like in ‘chairs’, or ‘es’ like in ‘dishes’ (in the International Phonetic Alphabet, these are represented /-s/, /-z/, /-ɨz/ respectively).

The super cool thing is that you can form the correct plural of a word you’ve never heard the plural of before, because of what is called your phonotactic knowledge, which is basically your internal knowledge of how sounds string together in your language. There is a famous experiment in psycholinguistics/language acquisition called the wug test.

The wug test

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The wug test is an experiment that tests children’s ability to successfully form plurals of words. Children are given made-up words they’ve never heard before and are asked to form the plural of them based on prompts such as the above. The test shows the ability of children at a very young age know how to correctly apply the right plural allomorph, the rules of which they have extracted from language around them.

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Kids tend to overgeneralise the plural rules, and so produce ‘foots’ instead of ‘feet’ because they haven’t learnt the irregular plural form. The same goes for verbs such as ‘freeze’ to ‘froze’. In fact, ‘freeze’ and ‘froze’ are actually examples of nonconcatenative morphology in English, so that leads nicely to:

Nonconcatenative morphology

Now that you should have a handle on the basis of morphology, I want to talk about nonconcatenative morphology, which the semitic languges – particularly Arabic – are famous for. Nonconcatenative morphology is where the root morpheme is modified itself instead of stringing morphemes together. The traditional account of Arabic has there being a “three-consonantal root conveying semantic meaning and a word pattern carrying syntactic information”. To give you a better idea of this, in Arabic the root ‘k-t-b’ has the semantic association with ‘write’. When vowels are added, the word is formed which takes it semantic meaning from the root and whatever the modification of the vowel is.

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This, for example, is ‘kataba’ which means ‘write’ and is formed by the addition of the vowels ‘a-a-a’ to the root ‘k-t-b’. For book, ‘kitab’, the same happens but ‘i-a’ is the vowels added instead. From this, you can see how various words are formed in Arabic:

katabtu “I wrote”
kattabtu “I had (something) written”
kātabtu “I corresponded (with someone)”
ʾaktabtu “I dictated”
iktatabtu “I subscribed”
takātabnā “we corresponded with each other”
ʾaktubu “I write”
ʾukattibu “I have (something) written”
ʾukātibu “I correspond (with someone)”
ʾuktibu “I dictate”
ʾaktatibu “I subscribe”
natakātabu “We correspond each other”
kutiba “it was written”
ʾuktiba “it was dictated”
maktūb “written”
muktab “dictated”
katīb “book”
kutub “books”
kātib “writer”
kuttāb “writers”
maktab “desk, office”
maktabah “library, bookshop”

Something like 90% of plurals in Arabic are formed this way. As I mentioned above, we have this ourselves in English in irregular verbs and plurals: ‘freeze’ to ‘froze’ is keeping the consonant structure while changing the vowels. Same goes for ‘foot’ to ‘feet’.

Anyway I probably missed some stuff out but I hope you enjoyed it and I’ll do follow up posts on things people are interested in particular or if I think of anything else. Thanks for reading.