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In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest component of word, or other linguistic unit, that has semantic meaning. The term is used as part of the branch of linguistics known as morpheme-based morphology. A morpheme is composed by phoneme(s) (the smallest linguistically distinctive units of sound) in spoken language, and by grapheme(s) (the smallest units of written language) in written language.

The concept of word and morpheme are different, a morpheme may or may not stand alone. One or several morphemes compose a word. A morpheme is free if it can stand alone (ex: "one", "possible"), or bound if it is used exclusively alongside a free morpheme (ex: "im" in impossible). Its actual phonetic representation is the morph, with the different morphs ("in-", "im-") representing the same morpheme being grouped as its allomorphs.

The word "unbreakable" has three morphemes: "un-", a bound morpheme; "break", a free morpheme; and "-able", a bound morpheme. "un-" is also a prefix, "-able" is a suffix. Both "un-" and "-able" are affixes.

The morpheme plural-s has the morph "-s", /s/, in cats (/kæts/), but "-es", /ɨz/, in dishes (/dɪʃɨz/), and even the voiced "-s", /z/, in dogs (/dɒɡz/). "-s". These are allomorphs.


Types of morphemes

  • Free morphemes, like town and dog, can appear with other lexemes (as in town hall or dog house) or they can stand alone, i.e., "free".
  • Bound morphemes like "un-" appear only together with other morphemes to form a lexeme. Bound morphemes in general tend to be prefixes and suffixes. Unproductive, non-affix morphemes that exist only in bound form are known as "cranberry" morphemes, from the "cran" in that very word.
  • Derivational morphemes can be added to a word to create (derive) another word: the addition of "-ness" to "happy," for example, to give "happiness." They carry semantic information.
  • Inflectional morphemes modify a word's tense, number, aspect, and so on, without deriving a new word or a word in a new grammatical category (as in the "dog" morpheme if written with the plural marker morpheme "-s" becomes "dogs"). They carry grammatical information.
  • Allomorphs are variants of a morpheme, e.g., the plural marker in English is sometimes realized as /-z/, /-s/ or /-ɨz/.

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