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Derivational and inflectional morphemes

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Observe the underlined bound morphemes in the two lists below


worked

cats

walking

speaks

John's

faster

slowest

modernise

drinkable

national

nonsense

infrequent

overexcited

dishonest


The morphemes in the list on the left contribute in some way to the insertion of the words in a particular grammatical context, so that the word agrees with this context in terms of tense, number, person etc. The changes in meaning that these morphemes bring are minimal. These are called inflectional morphemes, note that these are all suffixes.


The morphemes in the list on the right bring considerable semantic changes to the word, often word class is changed, e.g. modern (adj.) > modernise (v.); drink (v.) > drinkable (adj.); nation (n.) > national (adj). These are called derivational morphemes because they are used to derive new words. Derivational morphemes may be prefixes or suffixes.


One important observation must be made regarding inflectional morpheme. Consider the following examples:


cats

/kæts/

dogs

/dɒgz/

horses

/ˈhɔ:sɪz/


Note the three different pronunciations of the plural morpheme (on the basis of phonological characteristics of the preceding consonant). Different surface realisations of what is essentially the same thing (a plural marker) are known as allomorphs.

Another example of allomorphy is in the suffix for regular verbs in the past and past participle, -ed.


kissed

/kɪst /

pleased

/pli:zd/

decided

/dɪˈsaɪdɪd/


Another consideration regards the inflection of a small number of very common words in the English language. In the past simple tense, go, rather than being *goed, is went; the comparative form of good is better, not *gooder. This phenomenon, in which the allomorph isn’t just a phonological variation on the basic stem, is called suppletion.


In the next two exercises you will be expected to classify morphemes on the basis of the features discussed in this and the preceding pages.


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