Morphemes: The Building Blocks of Meaning

In Greek mythology, Morpheus is the son of Hypnos, the god of sleep, and Nyx, goddess of the night. Since Morpheus can change shapes (i.e., morph) to appear in dreams, he is often called “the god of dreams,” but his name, Morpheus, literally means "the maker of shapes” (from Greek morphe "form, shape").
 
This historical root is also the one from which we get our English word morpheme. A morpheme is a form that carries linguistic meaning; it's the smallest meaningful unit in a word. A morpheme may be either a whole word (like CAT) or a meaningful part of a word (like the suffix S in CATS). Morphemes are the signs of meaning.

A morpheme is a unit of meaning.

BED
one morpheme
BEDS
two morphemes (the -S morpheme indicates the plural form of the noun)
SMALL
one mopheme
SMALLEST
two morphemes (the -est morpheme indicates the superlative)
COOK
one morpheme
COOKED
two morphemes (the -ED morpheme indicates the past tense of the verb)
COOKING
two morphemes (the -ING morpheme indicates action or progress)
COOKBOOK
two morphemes (when each is a word, the combination is a compound)
“Words consist of one or more morphemes, meaningful units analogous to phonemes and graphemes” (Seidenberg, 2016). Morphemes are the smallest units that can carry meaning in a word. They are elementary units of meaning--units which can’t be further divided.
 
Words are formed by combining morphemes in principled ways, and these ways— these principles—can be understood by even very young children. For example, when I am working with Lesson 23 of The Writing and Spelling Road to Reading and Thinking (WSRRT), I can easily use Socratic questioning to help my students see that BEDS (two morphemes) is the word they use instead of BED (one morpheme) to mean “more than one BED.” Since my students already use both of these morphemes (CAT/CATS) on a regular basis, and since they already use hundreds and hundreds of additional singular and plural nouns in their daily speech, all I am doing here is helping them become aware of what they already know. I’m making it explicit. I’m pulling the information out of their minds so we can take a peek at it, so we can understand and organize it with the help of terms like noun, singular, plural, and morpheme.
 
In my classroom, this lays the groundwork for us to practice saying the relevant principle (“rule”) aloud: the plural of most nouns is formed by adding S, which we then do. In the future, my students will continue to say this rule aloud whenever they apply it to a noun they are learning to spell. Right now though, we are finished with this lesson so we take a few minutes to play with some of these concepts before moving on to the next part of our day. We talk about the order behind the way our words are built; we talk about singular and plural word forms; and I use a few simple word sums to illustrate that which we are discussing.
 
bed + s —> beds
cat + s —> cats
dog + s —> dogs
 
My experience has been that this sort of principle is easy for beginners to grasp because they have been unconsciously applying it since they were very young.
 
At some point, you may wish to tell your students about the Greek god Morpheus and introduce them to the related word morpheme. You and your students may also wish to step into a study of these meaningful units of our language. Using Socratic questioning, you can lead them. You can help them become aware of the morphological aspect of words as you continue to study English phonemes and graphemes. You can tell them that the study of morphemes is called morphology and that they will be acting like morphologists as they study morphemes during part of their learning day. They will understand you, and they will love you for trusting their intellects. Children love to be treated as though they are capable of learning a great number of things (after all, they are). They love big words, too. They love to think.
 
When you introduce morphemes, you may wish to use some additional linguistic terms so that you and your students can use this shared “language of instruction” during their work. For example, a linguist would say that the words BED, CAT, and DOG are simple words, not because they are easy but because they contain only one morpheme (i.e., only one meaningful unit). On the other hand, the words BEDS, CATS, and DOGS are complex words because they contain more than one morpheme. You will probably also want your students to know that all complex words contain a base element plus one or more additional elements that are affixed to it. The base of a complex word is its main morpheme (i.e., the morpheme that represents the essential meaning of the word). The base is the morpheme that the complex word is built upon. Easy peasy, right?

Understanding “Complex” Words

 
BED
S
 
CAT
S
 
REAL
LY
 
PLAY
ER
 
PLAY
ING
 
PLAY
ED
RE
PLAY
ED
UN
PLAY
ABLE

Prefix

Base

Suffix

 
The purpose of our writing system is to represent meaning. It does this in an orderly way, using graphemes (unit that represent phonemes) and morphemes (units that represent meaning). Like the tiny lego units from which my grandsons create an unlimited variety of structures, English morphemes are the small but meaningful language units from which we construct all of our words. Morphemes are the building blocks of meaning. Children love to play with them.
 
 

Note: Graphemes are the signs of phonemes. By lesson 23 in the WSRRT, Riggs students know this. They understand that the three graphemes in the written word CAT (C-A-T) are visual symbols for the three phonemes (/k/, /a/,/t/) that can be abstracted from the spoken word “cat.”

 

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