What is Morphology?

Morphology – the internal structure of words

The term morphology is Greek and is a makeup of morph- meaning 'shape, form', and -ology which means 'the study of something'. The term is used not only in linguistics but also in biology as the scientific study of forms and structure of animals and plants, and in geology as the study of formation and evolution of rocks and land forms. We are going to stick to morphology in linguistics, as the scientific study of forms and structure of words in a language.[1] Morphology as a sub-discipline of linguistics was named for the first time in 1859 by the German linguist August Schleicher who used the term for the study of the form of words.[2] Today morphology forms a core part of linguistics.

What is a word? 

If morphology is the study of the internal structure of words, we need to define the word word before we can continue. That might sound easy - surely we all know what a word is. In texts they are particularly easy to spot since they are divided by white spaces. But how do we identify words in speech? A reliable definition of words is that they are the smallest independent units of language. They are independent in that they do not depend on other words which means that they can be separated from other units and can change position.[3] Consider the sentence: 

The man looked at the horses.

The plural ending –s in horses is dependent on the noun horse to receive meaning and can therefore not be a word. Horses however, is a word, as it can occur in other positions in the sentence or stand on its own:

The horses looked at the man. 

- What is the man looking at? - Horses.

Words are thus both independent since they can be separated from other words and move around in sentences, and the smallest units of language since they are the only units of language for which this is possible. 


Morphemes - the building blocks of morphology

Although words are the smallest independent units of language, they have an internal structure and are built up by even smaller pieces. There are simple words that don’t have an internal structure and only consist of one piece, like work. There is no way we can divide work (wo-rk?) into smaller parts that carry meaning or function. Complex words however, do have an internal structure and consist of two or more pieces. Consider worker, where the ending –er is added to the root work to make it into a noun meaning someone who works. These pieces are called morphemes and are the smallest meaning-bearing units of language.[4]    

We said that words are independent forms, and a simple word only consisting of one single morpheme is therefore a free morpheme, that is, it is a word itself. Examples are house, work, high, us and to. Morphemes that must be attached to another morpheme to receive meaning are bound morphemes. If we break the word unkindness into its three morphemes un-, kind and -ness, we get two examples of bound morphemes: un- and -ness, as they require the root kind to make up a word. These are also called affixes as they are attached to the stem. The affix un- that go to the front of a word is a prefix and -ness that goes to the end is a suffix.

There are also infixes and circumfixes, although they are not very common in English. We mostly see infixes as curse words integrated in morphemes like the ones you can see below[5], or like the example from the American sitcom you can see below. A circumfix is a morpheme that attaches to the front and the back of a word, as you can see in the examples of Dutch past tense below:


The graphic shows free and bound morphemes according to positions

Drawing Morphology Trees

In order to show the internal structure of a word, we draw morphology trees.
The following video demonstrates how to draw a simple morphology tree and a complex morphology tree:  

YouTube Video

Below are the completed morphology trees from the video:

For more information on drawing morphology trees go to How is Morphology studied?

The purposes of studying morphology

The internal structure of words and the segmentation into different kinds of morphemes is essential to the two basic purposes or morphology: 1. the creation of new words and 2. the modification of existing words.[6] Think about it, we create new words out of old ones all the time. Here you can read more about how word creation is studied. 


[1] Aronoff, M. and Fudeman, K., (Date unknown). What is Morphology? [pdf.] Oxford: Blackwell. Available at:<http://www.blackwellpublishing.com/content/BPL_Images/Content_store/Sample_chapter/
0631203184%5CAronoff_sample%20chapter_What%20is%20morphology.pdf.> [Accessed 23.05.2012 at 15.00].
[2] Booij, G. E., (2007). The Grammar of Words: An Introduction to Linguistic Morphology. 2nd edition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
[3] Fasold, R. and Connor-Linton, J., (2006). An Introduction to Language and Linguistics. New York: Cambridge University Press.
[4] O'Grady, W., (1997). Contemporary Linguistics: An Introduction. London: Longman
[5] McGregor, W., (2009). Linguistics : An Introduction. London: Continuum International Publishing Group.
[6] Fasold, R. and Connor-Linton, J., (2006). An Introduction to Language and Linguistics. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Key Terms

affixes: a morpheme that is attached to something else to modify its meaning, e.g. un- in unhappy

bound morpheme: a morpheme that cannot stand on its own but must be attached to another word, e.g. -er, plural -s

circumfix: a morpheme consisting of two parts, one that is attached to the front and one to the back of a word

complex word: a word consisting of two or more morphemes, e.g. work-er

free morpheme: a morpheme that can stand on its own, e.g. house

infix: an affix that is inserted into a word

morphemes: the smallest meaning-bearing unit of language

the study of the internal structure of words

prefix: an affix that is attached to the front of a word, e.g. pro- in proactive

root: a base to which bound morphemes can be attached

simple words:
a word consisting of only one morpheme, e.g. work

suffix: an affix that is attached to the end of a word, e.g. plural -s on nouns

word: the smallest independent units of language