READING: What is Morphology? Chapter One Notes

Occasionally I like to pick up books on subjects I don’t know much about, but am interested in. For example, while visiting my cousins, I’ve picked up a linguistics textbook: What is Morphology? by Mark Aronoff and Kirsten Fudeman. As I like learning, I assume some of y’all might also. After the jump, a summary of what I learned in the first chapter…

(If my summary of any of these topics is incorrect, feel free to comment below.)

  • Morphology itself is the study of forms, and in linguistics, morphology refers to the “mental system involved in word formation” or – and this is mostly what I’m reading about here, “to the branch of linguistics that deals with words, their internal structure, and how they are formed”.
  • Morphemes: The smallest linguistic pieces with a grammatical function. This can be anything from an indivisible word such as lock to a prefix like un- to a suffix like -able. Some languages have affixes that are placed in the middle of a word (these are infixes), and some that attach to both the beginning and the end of a word (circumfixes). Both of these divide single morphemes physically, interrupting either the stem or the affix, disproving the idea that a morpheme is physically indivisible; rather, a morpheme cannot be divided into multiple pieces with each continuing to hold individual meanings.
  • stem is the word that affixes are being attached to. This can either be simple, like adding re- to act to get react, or it can be complex, like adding -ing to underestimate, which itself already has under- as a prefix.  If the stem is the smallest possible core piece of the word, then it is also the root. In underestimating, then underestimate is a stem, but estimate is the root.
  • morph is how a morpheme is spoken. An allomorph or variant is a variant of a morpheme that is pronounced differently than is typical. For example, say these variations of -ed out loud to see how they differ: jumped, repelled, rooted/wedded.
  • Words that do not already exist can still be understood, if they are unconventional uses of affixes to a recognisable root. For example, uncry and unreak are not words, but the intent behind them can still be understood, and the very fact that they are not words – and the underlying reason for that being that these are actions that can’t actually be undertaken, merely wished for – is actually used to add poignancy to the song that originated them. Other uses might include rekill, which might make no sense unless you are telling a story in which a monster, such as a zombie or vampire, can be killed again; regift, a term that entered the popular lexicon after a 1995 episode of Seinfeld; or even the common practice of adding the prefix e- to anything to imply an online version of the original: email, ecommerce, e-card, e-vite.
  • Often, languages have underlying rules that native speakers don’t tend to notice. For example: in English, plural nouns are almost often marked with an -s or -es, while that is not always true in other languages. Also, pervasive rules like adding -s to plurals often have a number of exceptions, like adding -ren to child or adding no plural marker to fish. Often, native speakers only notice this when comparing their language systems to others that have different rules.
  • The book approaches the explanation of theory with specific foundational beliefs: that it is important to focus on how languages differ from one another; that individual languages are distinct from the underlying concept of Language, which is the combined elements that all languages share that define them as language; that morphology, despite not being relevant to certain simpler languages, is a valuable and distinct area of study; that morphologies are systems; that every theory comes with the possibility of being disproved; and any tool is fair game to use in studying morphology.
  • Linguistic morphology is composed of two approaches to the study of Language, both key: analysis, which entails breaking words down and discovering the structure of the language, and synthesis, which involves taking the result of analysis to use the pieces in order to understand how greater words are made.
  • Here are four basic principles of analysis: Forms with the same meaning and the same sound shape in all their occurrences are instances of the same morpheme; forms with the same meaning but different sound shapes may be instances of the same morpheme if their distributions do not overlap; not all morphemes are segmental; and a morpheme may have zero as one of its allomorphs provided it has a non-zero allomorph. 

This is a summary of the information from the first chapter, with many longer sets of examples and explanations cut away for more streamlined definitions. I also did not include the sample problems. I really enjoyed this first chapter, and the basic look at linguistic morphology that it provided; I also hope, by taking notes and summarising the information, I’m able to retain it better than with a casual read.

I don’t know if more of these are forthcoming, but I enjoyed this process enough to complete this summary for the opening chapter. Perhaps.

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