What are Morphemes?

Morphology is the process to understand the words and how they work in a particular language. If we examine this definition, it’s clear that the root of every language is the word; therefore, if we want to truly understand a language we need to understand what a word is. The dictionary defines a word as “a sound or a combination of sounds, or its representation in writing or printing that symbolizes and communicates a meaning and may consist of a single morpheme or of a combination of morphemes”, simple enough to understand, except for that last part.
So, to understand what a word is, we need to know what a morpheme is; here we go: a morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit a word can be broken into. Not so difficult to understand. Let’s try some examples, let’s use the word “love”. We know what love is, we can feel it, we can see it in someone else’s eyes; so it’s safe to say that the word “love” has a meaning on its own, therefore, is a morpheme. What about the word “trees”? Let’s think about this carefully. We know what a tree is; we can walk to a park and see one, but “trees”?
Common sense tells me that this word means more than one tree. So let’s count: if I say, 2 trees, I have one tree and another tree. We can see that the word “trees” has no meaning; instead, it uses the meaning of the word “tree” to create its own definition as a group of them. Then, we can say that the word “trees” is formed by tree + s. We know that “tree” is a morpheme (same reasoning used for “love”) and consequently, following the definition of a word; “s” needs to be a morpheme too. Now we know what a morpheme is but, why is “s” a morpheme?

And that’s the next point we are going to talk about. We have two kinds of morphemes in English. The first one is the free morphemes. They can stand alone as meaningful words; some examples of them are: love, tree, house, cat, dog, fly, butter, cup, etc. We can define these morphemes as they are. The second kind of morphemes is the bound morphemes. They need to be attached to another free or bound morpheme, otherwise, they lack meaning; some examples of them are ad-, sub-, un-, -ful, -ness, -less.
They are used to change the meaning of a word or to alter some of its attributes. That’s all we need to know about morphemes so let’s go back to the words. To truly understand the words we have to know how they are classified. Following the morpheme approach, we can classify words in three categories: simple words, formed by one morpheme; complex words, formed by a free morpheme and one bound morpheme (dogs, hats, worker, etc. ); and compound words, formed by two free morphemes (butterfly, sunlight, backpack, etc. ).
There’s also another approach when classifying words and that’s the traditional approach. According to this, words have two classes: content words, which carry the meaning in a sentence (nouns, verbs, adjectives or adverbs); and function words, which serve to a variety of functions (determiners, quantifiers, auxiliaries, conjunctions, etc. ). We know how words are classified and what are the elements that form them, but we are still missing something: how do we make new words? To form new words we have several processes.
The first one we can mention is the Affixation which is no more than adding an affix (suffix or prefix) to a word (predict+able, work+er, in+expensive); we also have the Compounding where we join two words to make a new one (rain+bow, with+out, over+do); Acronyms, formed by taking the initial letters of a phrase (RADAR: Radio Detecting And Ranging); Blending where we form new words by combining parts of other two (smoke+fog=smog) and Clipping which is the process to form words by shortening parts of longer words (doctor=doc, veterinarian=vet, dormitory=dorm); among other slightly more difficult to understand processes.
New words can also be added by popular consent, for instance, the word “coke” is used to refer to almost any kind of soda but it’s a trademark of Coca Cola Company, same thing with Band-Aid which applies to personal bandages. Finally, we can get new words from other languages like a mosquito(Spanish), dime(French), golf(Deutsch), etc. And that’s it.

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