What is a word?

Nah, that’s too hard.

What’s in a word?

Much easier.

Morpheme: the most basic unit of meaning (‘morph’ is a morpheme in ‘morpheme’, ’eme’ is another morpheme)

Morphology: the study of meaning and morphemes

Here are some words:

Dog  Dogged  Dogs  Dogmatic  Dog catcher

Each of these words has the word ‘dog’ in them, but they’re not all equally related. We want to be able to describe how these words are related.

Dogmatic is clearly the odd one out. All the others have the morpheme ‘dog’ in them, but in dogmatic the morphemes are “dogma” and “tic”.

So now we have

Dog  Dogged  Dogs  Dog catcher

Dog and Dogs are the most clearly related. They’re basically the same thing. Wikipedia says they’re the same word, which I don’t really buy because Wikipedia doesn’t define ‘word’, but I get the idea. Compare “Dog” to “Dogs” and “Dog catcher”. The dog catcher is a different thing/idea/concept, while dogs are the same thing, just several of them.

There’s a more formal way to differentiate. If you use “dogs” instead of “dog” in a sentence, it makes the same kind of sense but changes grammatical usage. “She had a dog” vs. “She had some dogs”. But if you use “dog catcher” instead of “dog” in a sentence, it grammatically makes sense but the meaning has changed significantly.

So we group dog and dogs together and call it all part of the same lexeme. The lexeme is the referent. The most important form of the lexeme is called the lemma. When you talk about “to be” in English, the form it’s usually represented in is “is”. I think of it in dictionary terms. The dictionary entry will be the lemma. The other forms of the lexeme will be listed later. The lexeme is the definition given after the lemma.

“Dogged” and “Dog catcher” both contain the “dog” lexeme, but it feels more firmly attached to “dogged” than to “dog catcher”. This is partially because of the space, but also because “catcher” can stand on its own. The “-ed” in dogged is called a bound morpheme because it needs to be attached to another word to mean something. “dog” is an unbound morpheme because it doesn’t need to be attached. Similarly, “catcher” is unbound.

We call “Dog catcher” a compound word because it contains two unbound morphemes (like skyscraper).

A little note here: Yes, there is a g. No, we did not talk about the g. It’s sort of weird to talk about. This happens a lot, even though all the variants of “-ed” are clearly the same thing. We consider them to just be the same morpheme and usually ignore the fact that they can be written differently.

Depending on where an unbound morpheme attaches, we give it a specific name. You know two of them: prefix and suffix. “s” is a suffix. There are also infixes. English has as infix: -ma- as in


There’s also “abso-fucking-lutely”, though there are some other categories for that.

We categorize languages depending on how they use morphemes. On one end, we have Chinese, which has at most 6 morphemes in a word, depending on how you define word. On the other end, we have Ojibwe, whose longest word is “blueberry pie”, clocking in at 55 letters, and literally means something like “blueberry preserves layered and that lie in a crust with their face covered that is baked”. Obviously, this is not representative (blueberry pie is a foreign word) but it shows the spirit of their language: just keep adding on morphemes. Chinese did its borrowing by just making a word with similar sounds: “pizza” became “bi-sa bin”

Because of that, Ojibwe is considered an agglutinative language while Chinese is considered a isolating language. English (and, more significantly, Latin) are considered fusional languages because they tend to take a morpheme and add bound morphemes to it.

Voila! (Sort of a weird morpheme, because you can’t really incorporate it into anything.)

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