If you ever wondered what’s the difference between a morph and a morpheme, this blogpost contains an easy answer: Your stereotypical “morpheme” is actually a morph! No need to worry about all the problems with morphemes anymore: We can simply say “morph”, and continue to live happily. A morph is a minimal form, and if anyone has further questions about this definition, I’ve answered them in a forthcoming paper (“The morph as a minimal linguistic form”)
We could of course also continue to use the better-known Bloomfieldian term “morpheme” (in the sense of morph), but every linguist who knows a little more than what we find in Youtube videos (e.g. here or here) knows that there are huge problems with this notion. Anyone who has taken an advanced course or is well-read in the literature knows that “morphemes” don’t work the way Bloomfield (1933) may have imagined it. Languages simply don’t only consist of strings of meaningful pieces (= morphs) strung together – things are a lot more complicated, a lot of the time. Anderson (2015) concludes his comprehensive survey paper in a sobering tone (which basically says “down with the morpheme”, but more politely):
“We commonly assume that both the intension and the extension of the term [morpheme] are virtually self-evident, but it turns out on closer examination to hold the keys to some of the deep questions we can ask about the nature of language. One of these, indeed, is whether or not there is any such thing as a ‘morpheme’.”
These deep questions are unanswered (and will not be answered definitively anytime soon), so should we base our introductory lectures in linguistics on one or another very questionable theory of the nature of language?
Probably not, so we want to have the clearly defined term morph in our textbooks (and Youtube videos), because anyone can understand what a minimal form is (= a string of segments that has a meaning of some sort and cannot be broken down into smaller forms).
So how is this different from the Bloomfieldian definition of a “morpheme” as “the smallest meaningful unit”? One simple difference is that there may be unpronounced meaningful units, often called “zero signs” (at least since Jakobson 1939). For example, many people say that there is a zero plural article in English, based on the paradigm
“the tree – the tree-s – a tree – Ø trees”
The crucial difference here is between a “unit” and a “form”. What exactly is a “unit”? This is hard to say, but we know what a form is: a pairing of a segmental string and a meaning of some sort. A form is something that we can hear (or see, in the case of a sign language), whereas a “unit” can be an abstract element of a language system. Linguists have often made use of zeroes as elements of the system, for very good reasons. Without abstract notions such as zeroes, derivations, and movements, it’s rather difficult to describe a language concisely. But we cannot hear a zero, or a derivation, or a movement. These may well be “units” of a system (depending on our analytical preferences), but they aren’t forms that we can hear. As a result, there is very little agreement among linguists about the kinds of “units” that we should use to describe/analyze languages – and our students are confused.
But if we define a morph as something that a composite expression may be broken down into, then we can continue to use this term uniformly, and to assign tasks to students that are actually manageable – because all linguists agree on how to do it in principle (and when they don’t agree on particular cases, they disagree for well-understood reasons, along clear dimensions such as “lumper vs. splitter”). This is of course the same as the stereotypical “morpheme”, so for the purposes of quick explanation, it may be sufficient (and it’s probably everything that an average student remembers anyway).
But when we consider less stereotypical cases, things get difficult. To see to what extent linguists agree on “morpheme analysis” of English, I did a little experiment a while ago: On Twitter, I asked my followers (most of them linguists) how they would count morphemes in an English vowel-changing Past-Tense form such as sang (Paste Tense of sing). The result was about evenly split, with about two fifths saying that such a form contains two morphemes, and two fifths saying that it contains one morpheme. The remaining fifth says that the question makes no sense (perhaps because these respondents agree with Anderson and many other morphological theorists that the “morpheme” concept is on the wrong track).
In the English past-tense form „sang“, is there one morpheme (expressing the event and the tense), or are there two morphemes (the root morpheme and the tense morpheme)?
— Martin Haspelmath (@haspelmath) April 5, 2020
What explains this discrepancy? Presumably, it’s not that different linguists on Twitter have radically different views about the nature of language – they probably understand the word “morpheme” in two different ways: The problem is terminological!
Fortunately, terminological problems (unlike deep questions about the nature of things) are eminently solvable. We are dealing with three different concepts here:
(1) minimal linguistic form (= morph): if “morpheme” is used in this way, then sang consists of a single morph(eme), and the first answer is correct.
(2) minimal abstract “unit of analysis”: if “morpheme” is used in this way, then sang consists of two morphemes, because clearly, this form is used to denote singing and is at the same time a Past Tense form
(3) minimal meaningful all-purpose piece for analysis: if “morpheme” is understood like this, then the question makes no sense, because there can be no “all-purpose pieces” for analysis: Linguistic analysis is complicated and necessarily includes a range of different kinds of “elements” or “units” (minimally forms, classes and constructions, but quite possibly also zero, derivations, movement, interfaces, depending on one’s predilections).
Bloomfield doesn’t seem to have been aware of the differences between these three minimal entities, but by the time of Hockett (1947), some of the issues had come to light, and more came to light later (Matthews 1974; Anderson 1992; and so on). Hockett proposed the term “morph” for a minimal linguistic form, but unfortunately, Bloomfield’s older term “morpheme” continued to be used by most people, often in confusing ways (see Mugdan 1986 for a scathing review of the confusions of the first hundred years of the term “morpheme”; and Mugdan 2015 for a more comprehensive update).
In the morphology textbooks, the term “morph” is rarely mentioned, but it is often observed that a morpheme may be “realized” in different ways, and the term allomorph is prominent in all textbooks (and in the literature more generally) for such different realizations. Hockett, for example, said that the English plural morph -s in cow-s and the plural morph -en in ox-en “are grouped into a single morpheme” if the occur in complementary contexts (1947: 322), and such sets of suppletive forms are commonly discussed unde the heading of “allomorphy”. But on the other hand, phonological variants (e.g. cow-s vs. bush-es) are also often called “allomorphs” – so what is an “allomorph”?
Is each “allomorph” a morph, as the term would suggest? If so, are there also morphs that are not “allomorphs”? What is the difference between an allomorph and a morph. Most linguists would find it difficult to answer these questions, which shows that there is no common understanding of this term in the discipline either. But these terms occur in the textbooks as well, confusing our students in the same way as the term “morpheme”.
I have therefore proposed that sets of suppletive morph sets should be called supplemorphs, and phonological variants should simply be called morph variants (see this earlier blogpost). Supplemorphs are different forms (the plural form -s is not the same form as -en), but morph variants are variants of the same form (-s and -es are variants of the same morph).
If you read this as a non-expert, then you may be shaking your head: Is it really this bad? Do linguists use their most basic (and most famous) terms in such confusing ways? Yes, I’m ashamed to say (and I didn’t fully realize it when I wrote a morphology textbook quite some time ago, Haspelmath 2002) … If you read this as an expert and think that I’m wrong, then please make an alternative proposal, or at least point out errors in what I say here (and in the paper).
So to end on an upbeat note: There’s a good chance that linguists could converge in the future on the term morph (with its good Hockettian pedigree) to denote a minimal linguistic form (or of they want to continue to use the better-known term “morpheme”, then they will be aware that they actually mean “morph”). We may not agree on our visions for understanding the nature of language, but we can agree on some basic terminology for our textbooks.
Anderson, Stephen R. 1992. A-morphous morphology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Anderson, Stephen R. 2015. The morpheme: Its nature and use. In Matthew Baerman (ed.), The Oxford handbook of inflection, 11–33. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Bloomfield, Leonard. 1933. Language. New York: H. Holt and Company.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2002. Understanding morphology. London: Arnold.
Haspelmath, Martin. 2021. The morph as a minimal linguistic form. Morphology (to appear) https://ling.auf.net/lingbuzz/004926.
Hockett, Charles F. 1947. Problems of morphemic analysis. Language 23(4). 321–343. https://doi.org10.2307/410295.
Jakobson, Roman. 1939. Signe zéro. In Mélanges linguistiques offerts à Charles Bally, 143–152. Genève: Georg & Cie.
Matthews, Peter H. 1974. Morphology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mugdan, Joachim. 1986. Was ist eigentlich ein Morphem? Zeitschrift für Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und Kommunikationsforschung 39(1–4). 29–43. https://doi.org10.1524/stuf.1922.214.171.124.
Mugdan, Joachim. 2015. Units of word-formation. In Peter O. Müller, Ingeborg Ohnheiser, Susan Olsen & Franz Rainer (eds.), Word-formation: An international handbook of the languages of Europe, vol. Vol. 1, 235–301. Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton. https://doi.org10.1515/9783110246254-017.