Morphemes and Words

 

What is a morpheme? No, it is not the narcotic drug (that is morphine!). The morpheme is the smallest meaningful word element. Being the smallest meaningful element, a morpheme cannot be cut into smaller parts and still retains meaning. While a word can occur freely by itself (such as in one word answers), a morpheme may or may not be able to. When a morpheme can occur by itself, it is a word with a single morpheme; but when a morpheme cannot occur by itself, it has to be combined with other morphemes to form a word.

Lets look at a 6-word sentence from English The word library has three syllables and see how many morphemes it contains:

 

the-word-library-have-s-three-syllable-s.

 

As can be seen, four of the words the word library three each has only one morpheme. We cant break it down any of the 4 morphemes any further and still make the parts meaningful. But the two words has and syllables can each be cut into two morphemes. Has consists of have and the third person singular ending s; syllables contains syllable and the plural ending s (the two ss are homophones!). So there are 8 morphemes in all. The following table lists these morphemes, their number of syllables and whether they can be words by themselves:

 

morpheme

# of syllables

Word?

the

1

yes

word

1

yes

library

3

yes

have

1

yes

-s (3rd person sg.)

<1

no

syllable

3

yes

-s (plural)

<1

no

 

As we can see, a morpheme can have more than one syllables (e.g., library) or less than one syllable (e.g., -s, -s, the two homophonous morphemes). Therefore, a morpheme cannot be considered the same as a syllable. Another difference between a syllable and a morpheme is that while a morpheme has to be meaningful, a syllable may or may not be. None of the component syllables in the word library and syllable is meaningful. A morpheme also may or may not be a free word. Neither the plural s or the 3rd person singular s is a free word. Hence, a morpheme is not the same as a word. Rather it is a word element.

 

How about Chinese? Let us examine the sentence with the same meaning in Mandarin:

 

Tushuguan zhe ge ci you san ge yinjie.

Tu-shu-guan-zhe-ge-ci -you-san-ge-yin-jie

Picture book house this M. word have three M. sound segment

(M.=measure word)

 

Again, the following table lists these morphemes, their number of syllables and whether they can be words by themselves:

 

morpheme

# of syllables

Word?

tu

1

no

shu

1

yes

guan

1

no

zhe

1

yes

ge

1

no

ci

1

yes

you

1

yes

san

1

yes

ge

1

no

yin

1

no

jie

1

yes

 

A striking difference between Chinese and English is that all the morphemes in this sentence are one syllable long. There are no morphemes that have more than one syllables; nor are there morphemes that are shorter than a syllable. Like English, however, some of the morphemes can be words by themselves but some cannot.

In fact, what we see in this sentence is pretty typical of Chinese. So by and large, Chinese morphemes are no longer nor shorter than one syllable. And each morpheme is written with one character.

There are some exceptions to the one-syllable-one-morpheme-one-character generalization. For example, the following Mandarin words all have more than one syllables:

 

word

meaning

# of syllable/character

# of morpheme

putao

grape

2

1

pusa

Buddha

2

1

mahu

perfunctory

2

1

mada

motor

2

1

kafei

coffee

2

1

saqima

A kind of pastry

3

1

qiaokeli

chocholate

3

1

 

Even though the syllables are written with characters that are meaningful elsewhere, in these words they are simply used to represent sounds. The meanings of these characters have nothing to do with the meanings of the word. Therefore, all these words have only one morpheme each.

These examples seem to show that Chinese is somewhat like English after all, in at least allowing morphemes that have more than one syllable. But all these are loanwords from other languages. Native Chinese words are still true to the one-syllable-one-morpheme-one-character generalization.