Occasionally, when I told someone I formerly taught linguistics at Northeastern State University, they asked me, “What do you study in linguistics, is it grammar or what?”
“Yes,” I would reply. “It is grammatical inflections but also phonemes, allophones, syntax, dialects, language acquisition, and other abstruse topics such as psycholinguistics, which is really crazy. In short, linguistics is the science of language.”
This explanation usually ended the conversations.
Most areas of linguistics become swampy quickly, so this Grammar Dog column will first introduce a favorite linguistic topic of mine, morphemes.
A morpheme is a meaningful part of a word. Do not confuse “morpheme” with “morphine,” which will help with your pain but not with morphemes. In a dictionary, words are respelled in the phonemes, sounds, that make up the words. The phonemes are divided into syllables to show a word’s pronunciation, but the grouping of phonemes into syllables does not necessarily correspond to the morpheme divisions in a word.
A word may consist of a single morpheme or many morphemes. A simple word, one morpheme, is usually one syllable, short, and derived from Old English – think Beowulf. Here is a one-morpheme word: “nut.” However, “nuts” is a two-morpheme word because the “s” has meaning, and you know what it is.
In English, a small number of grammatical inflections are added as suffixes to a word’s root morpheme, compared to, say Spanish, or God forbid, German. To nouns, plurality is indicated by adding “-s” or “-es.”
To a noun posing as a possessive modifier of a noun, an apostrophe and an “s” or an “s” followed by an apostrophe is added. To adjectives, we add “-er” to indicate a comparison of the adjective’s quality to one other noun, and “-est” to indicate a comparison to two or more nouns. To verbs we add “-s” or “-es” to indicate they are singular, and no suffix to indicate plurality. We indicate a present participle by adding “-ing,” and indicate past and past participle meanings by adding “-ed” or -d.” And that’s it.
Now we turn to the fun part of this boring column – the prefixes, root morphemes, and suffixes, which can help us develop an awesome vocabulary, so we can avoid using worn-out adjectives like, well, you know, etc.
To have fun and learn how morphemes help develop a vocabulary that may make you “a great communicator,” you must first learn how to find the morphemes in a word. That task is easier when the morphemes correspond to the syllables.
Let’s think of a typical word with three morphemes – a prefix, a root, or base, and a suffix. The prefix qualifies the meaning of the root, the root establishes the basic meaning, and the suffix may further qualify the word or more likely just determine its part of speech.
Consider this word, “reversal.” The syllables and the morphemes are the same, which makes this word easy to analyze and easy to understand. The prefix “re-” means “back,” “vers” means “turn,” and “-al” marks it as a noun. Add the morphemes up, and you see “reversal” means a “turning around or back.”
Next week, more about analyzing a word for its morphemes and how to improve your vocabulary “a word a day, the McQuitty way.”
Bob McQuitty is a professor emeritus from NSU with an interest in the American language.