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This article/section is a stub — probably a pile of half-sorted notes, is not well-checked so may have incorrect bits. (Feel free to ignore, fix, or tell me)

Morphology studies word structure, and and deals largely with morphemes. It can also be said to study the notion of possible words in a language.

This includes the regularities that e.g. allow us to understand words forms we have not seen before - which applies somewhat more to synthetic languages, in which the focus is on morpheme combination(verify).

Related terms include

Free morphemes are those that can stand alone (and be used as part of words).

Bound morphemes are those that occur only as part of words, such as english suffixes '-less' and '-ly.' (Note that in english, there is a free morpheme 'less' and a bound morheme in the suffix '-less')

Analytical languages are those in which most or all morphemes are free and in fact stand alone, and have a sense of completeness similar to words in synthetic languages.

A content morpheme is one that adds conceptual content/meaning to the sentence (or more content than function), often (the base of) nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs.

A function morpheme is one that primarily adds relations between morphemes (or more function than content), including articles, prepositions, auxiliary verbs and such -- and affixes(verify)

A simple word is one consisting of a single morpheme.

A complex word is one consisting of a multiple morphemes, specifically a free one with various bound ones.

A compound (sometimes 'compound word') is one that combines multiple free morphemes into a single unit (such as an NP), for example news stand and red-hot. There are various types of compounds, and note that some languages prefer to agglutinate their compounds.

Root, base, stem

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These terms are used somewhat differently by different people, even by different linguists. Some definitions are actually somewhat specific to certain languages or language families, and may be somewhat problematic when you try to include compounds, or may not really apply when working with languages whose morphology is more than just morpheme affixing.

In specific languages, two or even all three terms may be considered symonyms, but in general linguistic theory and in language-agnostic descriptions they are all different.

Not all terms are always relevant.

You could say that the list root, base, and stem, and inflected word goes from innermost from outer form, but it would be more accurate to consider them forms with specific functions/contexts -- they do not necessarily refer to distinct forms of a given word, so it makes limited sense to, in isolation, argue over what a specific word/form is.


A root is the atomic lexical unit, which in most languages is a morpheme. You can see it as a (form,meaning) pair that either can't be reduced/analysed or loses its particular meaning when you do.

A root may be the only or the most significant lexical unit. In many languages, it is a morpheme, and then usually/always{[verify}} a content morpheme).

A word based on the root may consist purely of the root, while some roots cannot appear alone. Roots may appear augmented with affixes, inflection, or whatnot.

Base, stem

When inflectional morphology adds multiple morphemes to a root, you can argue that the lexical root is different from the immediate inflectional root. This is one reason there are more terms.

Particularly, a base can be said to be anything (morpheme, word form) that enters a word-formation process, which is quite a separated concept from the root, which is the core of a form that is possibly complex, but not necessarily any different.

Put a different way, a base is something that can be built upon with morphological operations(verify), so a root is a base.

A base is not necessarily a root, because a non-atomic form (e.g. inflected, derived) can also be a base. You can see roots as a subset of bases.

A base (form) may be a root (form).

The term stem relates is used when you wish to use inflection, and refers to a word form before/without inflection.

A stem is sometimes taken to be a specific type of base.

A stem (form) may be a root (form), and, arguably, a stem is a specific type of base.

More discussion, Examples, possible statements

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In English, there are a lot of simple words for which the stem and base can be no different from the root form - until you use multiple affixes.

A simple word has one root(verify), a compound (say, bittersweet) can be said to have more than one, or to have a complex stem.

A stem always contains at least one base, but stem is a term often used when this is already not the root form

As such, it is not unusual to see the root as the basic content morpheme, and a base as anything that can be built on - that all roots are bases, bases are not necessarily roots. Bases and stems are also similar, except that stems suggest inflectional operations, and bases are more generally to relevant word formation operations(verify).

  • paint - The root paint is a free morpheme, so can appear by itself
  • the stem of forking is fork
  • the root of forking is fork
  • the root of repaintable is paint
  • the base of repaintable when adding the re- is paintable(verify)
  • paint can be a root, base, or (arguably) stem in different contexts
  • bittersweet - a compound. Has multiple roots, can be said to have multiple bases/stems.(verify)
  • recess, process have the bound morpheme cess for their root

Alternative statements / other relevant statements:

  • "the lemma is the base form of the word"
  • compound nouns can be taken to have complex stems
  • Arguably, the distinction between compounds and morphological affixing is not that large
  • "The base can be described as the part of the word/form that does not change in morphological operations." (verify)
  • "The base form is usually closest to the lemma form."(verify)
  • "In inflected languages, the stem is the word common to all inflected forms (Note this is not necessarily the lemma)"(verify)
  • "In non-inflected languages) the lemma/citation form."(verify)

See also

Morphology, morphographics, morphophonetics

Morphology in general is concerned with the combination and interaction of morphemes. In many languages this interacts with writing and/or phonetics.

In any case, you should be aware that looking at only one medium means you are not looking at all things related to morphology, but you may of course be handling most or all relevant to specific processing, e.g. text or speech processing or a local effect you are studying.

You can often get away with looking at many of these interactions in isolation, although the best predictors probably do both at once.

Derivational and inflectional morphology

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It seems traditional to make the distinction between derivational morphology and inflectional morphology, in many languages both referring to the use of function morphemes to create different word forms (usually using affixes).

However, the distinction between the two is somewhat idealized based on some properties it has, and there probably isn't a clear cognitive division. For some cases you can easily tell derivation and inflectional changes apart, for other cases even linguists will disagree on whether something is inflection or derivation/word formation. As such, it is a useful distinction to explain the differences involved, but it should not be thought of as a black and white distinction. The reality probably lies in more complex investigations of semantic and syntactic contributions.

(Note: in many languages there are many more content morphemes that can also be used as affixes, but this is (morpheme) compounding, not inflection or derivation. Of course, the the distinction between function and content affixes can in some cases be fuzzy too - the wider it can be used, the more it can be said to be a function morpheme)

You could say that derivational morphology is primarily lexical and does word formation, while inflectional morphology is more grammatical and only adapts words for use in different situations, answering questions like when and how many, but without changing the sense or function, and usually not the lexical category (POS) either. The meaning of the inflection is also usually very predictable, with minimal or no change to the sense (e.g. dog→dogs), only marking for a specific property (also a distinction you could argue over).

The distinction between inflection and derivation seems to exist mainly to point out that derivation does is a different thing, namely word formation: it creates words with different meanings/senses. Usually the sense of the derivation is similar and understandable, condider perhaps feel→feelings or sense→sensation. While similar and usually judged as sensible by humans, derivational changes are not always very predictable/analysable.

Derivational morphemes are not necessarily productive (can not be structurally combined with everything, or have erratic effect on meaning).

Inflectional morphology generally doesn't change the lexical category, derivational often does.

When both derivation and inflection are used in a word form, a language has rules of order and interaction, which are usually relatively strict.

In English; relatively common english affixes


  • You may generally add affixes to create longer words and remove affixes to get more basic forms. Related notes:
    • Particularly additions will often be understood, even most that are not common or dictionary-accepted
    • removing affixes won't necessarily yield existing words, and not only because you get a bound root or one that you never see alone (some words are introduced this way, though; see back-formation)
  • affix changes won't necessarily yield things from the same root, or may form a homograph that also matches some other sense
  • specific affixes tend to work only on specific types of words. For example, a squeegee is one one who got sqeeged and Jeffery is not a place that Jeffs and a theory is unrelated to the; -ee works only on verbs and -ery only on (non-name) nouns and on adjectives.
  • just lexical category filtering is not enough to make strong assertations with senses. For example, the noun miner plus the suffix al yields mineral, which does not mean 'related to miners.' Similarly, medicate does not have the meaning 'to medic someone'.

  • it's not unusual for a word to have two or three affix changes, and inflectional and derivational can happen side by side.
  • A few cases (e.g. -ing), the same morpheme act in inflectional and derivational morphology. Consider work→working (inflection) and build→building (as in a building), which is derivation.
  • Occasionally you get homographs with different senses.

  • The distinction between affixes and morphemes may be vague. For example, dia- occurs almost exclusively in Greek loanwords and has a fairly well-settled meaning perhaps in part becaise of its limited use. Of course, the whole idea that an affix is functional breaks with a god amount of (relatively less common) specific affixes that are could also be seen as (some degree of) content morphemes.
  • English used to be a highly inflected language, but modern English morphology is mostly derivational. In fact, the list of inflective suffixes below can be considered a complete list for current American English.
  • There may be choices affected by other words. For example, there are various prefixes that have a not/opposite meaning. Usually only one or a few are possibly on a specific word

Some more cases to consider:

  • manual technically comes from manus+al, but many might consider manual a root
  • The word ran has nothing to do with the word random, and so on.
  • The pre- prefix commonly appears with bound roots

Inflective suffixes

  • -s/-es suffix: plural noun
    • on a singular noun -> plural noun (e.g. cats)
    • on a verb -> (3rd singular) present (e.g. She trips)
  • -ed/-en suffix: past verb tense (e.g. eaten, has closed)
  • -ed suffix: participle marker (e.g. he danced)
  • -en suffix: participle marker(verify), e.g. blacken (verify)
  • -ing suffix: (present) participle marker)

Derivational prefix examples

  • be- prefix
  • dis- prefix (sense of not/opposite) (note that the s falls away if prepending before a letter b, d, l, m, n, r, s, v, and occasionally in front of g and j)
    • verb->verb (e.g. obey -> disobey)
    • adjective->adjective (e.g. honest -> dishonest)
    • verb->noun (verify)
    • noun->noun (e.g. ) (less common(verify))
  • in- prefix (sense of not/opposite)
    • adjective->adjective, (verify)
  • im- prefix (sense of not/opposite)
    • adjective->adjective, (verify)
  • mis- prefix (sense of not/opposite)
    • verb->verb
  • pre- prefix ()
    • verb->verb
  • re- prefix (sense of again)
    • verb->verb
  • un- prefix (sense of not/opposite)
    • verb->verb
    • adjective->adjective
    • (verify)

Derivational suffix examples

  • -al suffix (relating to, pertaining to)
  • -an: see -ian
  • -ant suffix (performing agent)
    • verb->noun
  • -able/-ible suffix (relating to) (See also ible, able)
    • verb -> adjective
  • -ance/-ence, -ancy/-ency suffix (act, state, quality)
    • verb->noun
  • -ary/-ery/-ory suffix (relating, quality,place)
    • noun -> noun
    • adjective -> noun
    • adjective -> adjective (verify)
  • -ate suffix (cause, make)
    • noun->verb
    • adjective->verb
  • -dom suffix (state, quality)
    • noun -> noun
  • -ee suffix (receiving party. Applies to transitive verbs that select for animate objects)
  • -ess suffix (female)
    • noun->noun
  • -ese suffix (inhabitant, native of)
    • noun->noun
    • adjective->adjective
  • -ey suffix
    • ->adjective
  • -en suffix (become, make)
  • -ence suffix: see -ance
  • -er, -or suffix (actor, one who ...)
  • -ful suffix (having, filling)
    • noun->adjective
    • verb->adjective(verify)
  • -fy suffix: see ify
  • -ible suffix: see -able
  • -ian/-an suffix (inhabitant of, pertaining to)
    • noun->adjective
  • -ic suffix (characteristic of)
  • -ical (see also -ic, -al, and ic, ical)
    • ->adjective
  • -ity suffix (condition, quality)
    • adjective -> noun
  • -ing suffix
    • verb->verb
    • noun->verb (verify)
  • -ive suffix (tending to, doing)
    • verb -> adjective
  • -ify/-fy suffix (change into)
  • -ily/-ly suffix
    • adjective -> adverb
    • -> adjective (sometimes)
    • adjective -> adverb (verify)
  • -ise/-ize suffix
    • adjective -> verb
    • noun -> verb
  • -isation/-ization suffix (change into, process), a combination of -ise/-ize and -ate, -ion suffixes
  • -ish suffix
    • adjective->adjective
    • noun->adjective
    • (verify)
  • -ification suffix (change into), a combination of suffixes (-ify, -ic, -ate, -ion)
  • -ion suffix: see -sion/-tion
  • -ish suffix (nature, resembling)
  • -ist suffix (actor)
  • -ism suffix (system, characteristic)
    • noun -> noun
    • adjective -> noun
  • -less suffix (absence)
    • noun -> adjective
  • -ly suffix: see -ily
  • -ment suffix (state)
    • verb -> noun
    • adjective -> noun(verify)
  • -ness
    • Adjective -> Noun
  • -ous suffix (having, full of)
    • noun->adjective
  • -or suffix: see -er
  • -ship suffix
  • -tion/-sion suffix (act of)
    • verb -> noun
  • -y suffix (having, full of)
    • noun->adjective
  • yze/yse: see -size/ize
  • yzation/ysation: see -ization/isation

Morphographic details

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Even when there is no sound change (or sometimes to prevent it), you may have to do something more than just adding an affix. This often consists of adding or removing a letter or two, and not unusually doubling a consonant.

Such phonological details are not all to predictable in English in general, and it only gets a little better when looking only at suffixing (or affixing in general, but prefixes tend to be simple separated syllables).

  • vowel end often means removal of the vowel (verify)
  • vcvc ending, cvc ending (often indicating doubling(verify))
  • cc endings (usually doesn't involve doubling)
  • stress (stress on/near the end indicates doubling(verify))
  • ending with the letter c often means a k is added.

See also

Computational morphology

Computational morphology often focuses on writing, and so can usually be described as morphographemic systems, and many may focus on generation or analysis but not necessarily both.

Observations you can use in such systems:

  • Affixes generally apply to words in a few lexical categories
  • additional filters may apply (e.g. -er and -ee affixes select for transitive/distransitive verbs that work on animate objects/subjects
    • verbs may be
  • Most affixes create a word in either in a specific new lexical category, or the same as the one it applied to



Agglutination refers to joining morphemes together.

The first association is often the morphological means of (base+affix) word formation.

Many languages primarily have agglutination in the form of affixing some common functional bound morphemes.

In some languages -- agglutinative languages/morphologies, agglutination is also a common means of creating (writing) compounds. Such languages can often compound by affixing together words/morphemes/stems, with restricted primarily by what lexical semantics pragmatically allows - which to other languages can look somewhat arbitrary.

See also: