Author: Francis Katamba


Morphology is the branch of grammar that investigates the internal structure of words.

Table of contents

Morphology: the study of word structure

Morphology is the study of word structure. It is a term that was originally coined by the great German poet, Johann Wolfgang Goethe (1749-1832) to refer to the study of the structure of animals and plants. In the nineteenth century the term was extended to the branch of grammar that investigates the structure of words (as opposed to syntax, which investigates sentence structure).

Often it is possible to identify units of meaning or grammatical function that are smaller than the word. These are called morphemes. For example, the Turkish word gelmiyorum can be analysed thus:

1)   gel-m-iyor-um
     Come-neg-progressive -1st pers. Singular
    'I am not coming' 

The principal branches of morphology are inflection and derivation.


Inflection treats variation in the realisation of a word which is syntax driven. An example of inflection is the marking of gender agreement in Albanian between an adjective and the noun it modifies:

2)   vajza trim-e  (feminine)  'the brave girl' 
     studenti trim (masculine) 'the brave student' 

Typically, inflectional morphology is characterised by paradigms: words are grouped together in different sets which take different morphological markers for the same morphosyntactic property (e.g. for tense, case, number). In Latin, for example, when they appear in subject position and in the nominative case, first declension nouns end in -a while second declension nouns end in -us.

3)   Agricola venit  'the farmer is coming'
     Filius venit    'the son is coming' 


By contrast, derivational processes are not motivated by syntax. Their function is to create new vocabulary items. For instance, nouns are formed from verbs in Malay using a prefix corresponding to English -er:

4)   Verb                     agentive noun 
     baca   'read'            pembaca    'reader' 
     dakwa  'prosecute'       pendakwa   'prosecutor'
     curi   'steal'           pencuri    'thief'
     gali   'dig'             pengali    'digger'

Variants of a morpheme ( in this case pem, pen) are called allomorphs. Observe that last consonant of the prefix matches the place of articulation of the following consonant. The study of such phonologically conditioned alternations in the allomorphs of a morpheme is called morphophonemics.

Incorporating, isolating, agglutinating and inflecting languages

Languages show great variation in the ways in which words are constructed. In languages with incorporating morphology, such as Eskimo, words are immensely complex and the boundary between word-structure and sentence structure is blurred. For instance, objects may be incorporated into verbs:

5)   Angya-li-uq 
     boat- make -3rd pers. sing. Intransitive
     'He is making a boat'

At the other end of the scale are isolating languages where words are normally mono-morphemic e.g. Vietnamese hai con gà (two-animal classifier- chicken) 'two chickens'.

In between are agglutinating and inflecting languages. In the former morphemes are chained together to form complex words as in Swahili:

6)   tu-ta-wa-on-esha   'we will show them' 

In inflecting languages words contain several meaningful/structural units. But the units tend to occur as properties of the entire word and are not associated in a one-to-one fashion with chunks that make up the word:

7)   eo    (1st pers. sing. present. Indicative) 'I go' 
     it    (3rd-pers. sing. present. indicative) 'goes' 


Katamba, F. (1993) Morphology. London: Palgrave.

Haspelmath, M. (2002) Understanding Morphology. London: Arnold.

Matthews, P. (1991) Morphology. 2nd edn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Spencer, A. (1991) Morphological Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Spencer, A. and A. Zwicky (1998) The Handbook of Morphology. Oxford: Blackwell.

Related links
The Global language resource

Morphology course
Language and information lab

LFG Morphosyntax
Some recent work on Morphology, Syntax and the Morphology/Syntax Interface

LMBM: an Overview

The Distributed Morphology Homepage

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