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Dividing words into morphemes: some issues

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In the previous exercise, you should have classified the following words as being complex.

Treatment, employee, attendance, operation, storage, actor, engineer, departure, sandy, friendly.

With some of these words it is easy to divide the words on the basis of the spelling alone:

treat-ment, employ-ee, attend-ance, actor, sand-y, friend-ly.

With others it is more difficult e.g. engineer. Should it be engine-er, conserving the spelling of the element on the left, or engin-eer, on analogy with clearer cases such as volunt-eer (cf. volunt-ary ), or auction-eer (from auction)? Looking at the phonemic transcription of the word may help us to decide:

engine

/ˈendʒɪn/

engineer

/ˈendʒɪnɪə/

Here we see clearly that the final 'e' in engine is silent, suggesting that the division should be engin-eer. In fact, it would be far clearer if all morpheme divisions were done with phonemic transcription. Most writers, however, prefer to stick with ordinary script for practical reasons.

Therefore, when we are unsure whether a grapheme belongs to a morpheme on the left or on the right, we will normally choose to attribute it to that on the right. Note that this is a rather arbitrary decision and not all may agree.

Another example: riper = ripe-r or rip-er?

ripe

/raɪp/

riper

/ˈraɪpə/

We will decide to divide it so: rip-er, also by analogy with fast-er, small-er etc.

A slightly different case is that of words like reddish, hotter, biggest. Here we would probably not be happy about dividing them as redd-ish, hott-er, bigg-est, because redd, hott and bigg look rather odd. However, the alternative is to divide them as red-dish, hot-ter, big-gest – it would be rather difficult to justify classifying -dish, -ter and -gest as morphemes, especially when compared with black-ish/green-ish, quiet-er/cheap-er, small-est/fast-est etc.

Also in this case, the division becomes clearer when using phonemic transcription:

red > redd-ish

/red/ > /ˈredɪʃ/

hot > hott-er

/ˈhɒt/ > /ˈhɒtə/

big > bigg-est

/ˈbɪg/ > /ˈbɪgəst/

Hence, the double consonant letters are merely an orthographic convention in English (regarding morphemes following stressed syllables with short vowels /ɪ, e, æ, ʌ, ʊ, ɒ /).

To conclude: when you are unsure about where to place a morpheme division, concentrate on the pronunciation of the morphemes, separately and together. Do not be afraid to produce morphemes with odd-looking spellings: this is not your fault, but that of the bizarre English spelling system!

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