Morphology 101

Today I want to start talking about morphology, which means how words are structured. If you've been reading MakeALang for awhile, I posted last year about phonotactics a little. Phonotactics = phon ( sound) + tact (touch). Phonotactics is about what sounds can touch other sounds in a language. Example: in English, s and r cannot be next to each other. Sri Lanka is obviously a foreign name to us because we just know that s and r aren't supposed to be together.

Morphology is different. Morphology is not about the sounds that make up words, but about the structure of words. Its about what a word is in your conlang, and how it works to convey meaning. This is actually a huge subject (for me, at least) and I've been struggling for MONTHS to try and break it down to a point where its digestible. Well that, and my wife and I had a baby boy end of September. :D

I won't be covering all morphology concepts in this post, but there will probably be a Morphology 202 post later. But the first concepts to digest are Lexemes vs. Word Forms. A lexeme is a unit of meaning, in as much as rock and rocks have almost the same meaning. A word form can be considered another form, or sub-meaning of a lexeme, so rocks is a pluralized word form of the lexeme rock.

Morpheme vs. lexeme vs. word-based morphologies: There are three main approaches to studying morphology, and you can keep these in mind as you develop your word structure. Most of what follows for the next few paragraphs is pretty much copied and pasted from the Wikipedia article on Morhology, because I think its already pretty easy to understand.

Morpheme-based word forms are analyzed as arrangements of morphemes. A morpheme is defined as the minimal meaningful unit of a language. In a word like independently, we say that the morphemes are in-, depend, -ent, and ly; depend is the root and the other morphemes are, in this case, derivational affixes. In a word like dogs, we say that dog is the root, and that -s is an inflectional morpheme. This way of analyzing word forms as if they were made of morphemes put after each other like beads on a string, is called Item-and-Arrangement.

The morpheme-based approach is the first one that beginners to morphology usually think of, and which laymen tend to find the most obvious. This is so to such an extent that very often beginners think that morphemes are an inevitable, fundamental notion of morphology, and many five minute explanations of morphology are, in fact, five minute explanations of morpheme-based morphology. This is, however, not so. The fundamental idea of morphology is that the words of a language are related to each other by different kinds of rules. Analyzing words as sequences of morphemes is a way of describing these relations, but is not the only way. In actual academic linguistics, morpheme-based morphology certainly has many adherents, but is by no means the dominant approach.

Lexeme-based morphology is (usually) an Item-and-Process approach. Instead of analyzing a word form as a set of morphemes arranged in sequence, a word form is said to be the result of applying rules that alter a word form or stem in order to produce a new one. An inflectional rule takes a stem, changes it as is required by the rule, and outputs a word form; a derivational rule takes a stem, changes it as per its own requirements, and outputs a derived stem; a compounding rule takes word forms, and similarly outputs a compound stem.

Word-based morphology is a (usually) Word-and-Paradigm approach. This theory takes paradigms as a central notion. Instead of stating rules to combine morphemes into word forms, or to generate word forms from stems (stems meaning the root word), word-based morphology states generalizations that hold between the forms of inflectional paradigms. The major point behind this approach is that many such generalizations are hard to state with either of the other approaches. The examples are usually drawn from fusional languages, where a given "piece" of a word, which a morpheme-based theory would call an inflectional morpheme, corresponds to a combination of grammatical categories, for example, "third person plural." Morpheme-based theories usually have no problems with this situation, since one just says that a given morpheme has two categories. Item-and-Process theories, on the other hand, often break down in cases like these, because they all too often assume that there will be two separate rules here, one for third person, and the other for plural, but the distinction between them turns out to be artificial. Word-and-Paradigm approaches treat these as whole words that are related to each other by analogical rules. Words can be categorized based on the pattern they fit into. This applies both to existing words and to new ones. Application of a pattern different than the one that has been used historically can give rise to a new word, such as older replacing elder (where older follows the normal pattern of adjectival superlatives) and cows replacing kine (where cows fits the regular pattern of plural formation). While a Word-and-Paradigm approach can explain this easily, other approaches have difficulty with phenomena such as these.

Now that I've thrown all that at you, I want to condense it a bit by emphasizing this: word-building is usually analyzed with a three-way distinction:

Derivation: adding affixes to roots or compound stems to get new stems with different meanings; side vs. inside vs. insidious.

Composition or compounding: joining of two or more prior members (i.e., already extant words) to create a new word. Sometimes the words don't need to become one word, like bookkeeping. The meaning of hunter can change a lot by adding a word - deer hunter vs. bargain hunter.

Inflection: Adding affixes to roots or stems that alter grammaticalized categories, as opposed to altering meaning (as with derivation); categories like person, number, gender, tense, mode/mood, aspect, etc. We do this in English - we pluralize something by adding an s at the end. This is an "inflectional rule."

One last concept - Isolating Morphology. This is basically a lack of morphology. Every word has its own meaning and there is no morphology. You could not have words like "amusement" or "firefighter" in an isolating language. You could have a word like "trolsh" that MEANT amuse or fire, and another word "im" that meant -ment or fighter, but words cannot be derived in an isolating language, so you just wouldn't combine them into "trolshim". Also, because words are not marked by morphology showing their role in the sentence, word order tends to carry a lot of importance in isolating languages. Isolating languages are common in southest Asia, if you want to know any examples of how this might work.

I want to give props and thanks to Jeff Burke who helped me with this post. Please check out his blog - he's writing a novel just like me! Also special thanks to Baalak, who recommended me to add something about isolating languages.

Ama pos tulonu sa taka oma so! This post is already too long so thats it!


Anonymous said...

Congratulations! I hope your son is healthy and happy. I'm also glad to see you coming back to the table and making a post which seems to be trying to make up for lost time. Way to go.

You've created a detailed, well-informed, and, had I not already done much of the research you yourself did for this entry, informative post on the subject. I was glad to read it. However, I think you've overlooked something important, and I'd like to bring it to your attention.

The morphology you described is descriptive of a synthetic language, but I feel it is important to point out that it fails to describe isolating tongues. As a matter of fact, I've heard isolating languages described as lacking any morphology at all, an interesting concept for those of us raised with synthetic and polysynthetic languages to wrap our heads around.

I feel it is important to state that everything which is encoded in a language with morphology is also encodable solely with syntax; though that seems to be something for another post to describe.

Welcome back to your blag. I hope to see lots more from you. Hope you had a merry Christmas, and have a happy new year.

Matthew Shields said...

Yeah, I had thought about putting in something about isolating morphology, but trimmed it out, and some other things, for simplicity's sake. I think I'll edit the post to include it now though. Keep on conlangin' Baalak!

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