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The Significant Contribution of Morphology to the Study of English Language

Anayo Raphael Ngene

Language and Communication Department

Child of Promise School

Ajah-Lagos State




Morphology has vital impact on the development and perception of English words. As a major

level of linguistic analysis it plays a considerable role in producing and building thousands of

English words. English derives a huge number of words on a daily basis from all the languages

of the world and morphology gives you an idea about the source of the words with rules and

regulations on how to form new words.

In view of the above submission, this paper examines the significant contribution of morphology

to study of English language taking into cognizance that the morphology is the study of word

structure as well as word formation processes. Also, it reviews the usefulness of morphemic

awareness in learning English Language.

The paper is divided into two sections; the first section reviews the concept of morphology,

morpheme, and word formation process. The second section focuses on scholarly review of

morphemic awareness, its relevance and the significant contributions of morphology to the study

of English Language.
Section 1.1: The Concept of Morphology

Morphology is defined as the study of the internal structure of words and the rules governing the

formation of words in a language (Celik, 2007; Yule, 2010). This implies that morphology

studies the internal structure of words. It tries to describe which meaningful pieces can be

combined to form words and the consequences of such combination on the meaning or

grammatical function of the resulting word.

Within the domain of linguistics, the word morphology refers to the study of structure of words

in terms of morphemes, or minimal meaningful elements i.e., prefixes, roots, and suffixes

(Bloomfield, 1933), The meaning of a word is derived from the combined meanings of the

morphemes of that particular word. For example, a certain level of morphological awareness is

helpful in determining that the er in farmer denotes one who farms and the un in unhappy

indicates not happy.

According to Crystal, D. (1995) morphology is the study of the structure of words especially in

terms of morphemes. The word played has two structures or components; the verb „play‟ which

is the stem or root and the morpheme –ed. Morphemes incorporate roots, stems, prefixes, and

suffixes. They are the smallest parts of words that convey significance. Having the capacity to

use morpheme is integral to building an overwhelming vocabulary and grasping English content.

For an instance the addition of morpheme –age to words like marry and carry will derive new

words such as marriage and carriage respectively.

Aronoff and Fudeman (2010, pp. 1-2) refer to it as “the mental system involved in word

formation” as well as a branch of linguistics that investigates words, their internal structure, and

how they are created. This implies that morphology is indeed part of a speaker‟s grammatical

knowledge of a language.
Invariably morphology is closely connected to the notion of words because it deals with how

words are formed, structure of words, and how they contribute to meaning of words. In other

words, morphology is the study of form, structure and meaning of words. Words such as take,

takes, took, taken, taking are regarded as the different forms of the lexeme „take‟. Also, as word

formation process, it is saddled with the responsibility of how words are generated and formed in

the lexicon as well as rules guiding the formation of words especially syntactic rules.

Section 1.2: The concept of morpheme

Crystal (1976:193) defines a morpheme as “the smallest bit of language which has a meaning”.

As the smallest meaningful unit of the grammar of a language, it cannot be broken down into any

other meaningful unit. It is the minimal unit used in building words in a language which cannot

be further split without altering its meaning. For example, “if you add a morpheme to an

utterance, or take away, by definition you alter the meaning of the utterance”. For example,

adding -tion to locate changes it to location which with –s becomes locations.

A morpheme we can say is the unit of meaning that includes a form like play, and units of

grammatical function which includes elements used to show tense, number and comparison. For

example, the word “players” consists of three morphemes. One minimal unit of meaning is play,

another minimal unit of meaning is –er (marking “person who does something”), and the other

minimal unit of grammatical function –s (indicating plural).

Morphemes are divided into two classes: Free and Bound Morphemes. Free morphemes are

morphemes that can stand by themselves as single words that make sense e.g. open and tour.

Bound morphemes are those forms that cannot normally stand alone and are typically attached

to another form e.g. re- as in reapply,-ist as in cultist, -ed as in looked, and-s as in cars. These

morphemes cannot make meaning on their own except they are either added to nouns as in {car}
+ {s}, or added to verbs as in {look} + {ed}. With this, one can conveniently argue that all

affixes in English are bound morphemes whether they are prefixes or suffixes. There are those

that are called bound base morphemes. They are not meaningful in isolation but have meanings

when combined with other morphemes. For example, „cran‟ in cran-berry, cran-apple, cran-


Section 1.3: Word Formation:

Word formation takes place in these two distinct realms of morphology; inflectional and


Inflectional Morphology studies the way in which words vary (or inflect) in order to express

grammatical contrasts in sentences such as singular/plural or past /present tense (Crystal

1997:90). Girl and girls for example are two forms of the same word; the choice between them,

singular and plural is a matter of grammar. Thus inflectional morphology treats the generation of

words by the syntactic component of the grammar.

All inflectional features such as perfect aspect (-en), progressive aspect (-ing), gerundive (-ing),

tense (+ past, -past), comparative and superlative markers are generated by phrase structure rules.

Words like broken, breaking, breaks and broke are created by the syntactic morphological

processes. At the surface structure, inflectional features are incorporated into words. These

words are spelled out cyclically, and an inflected word is generated.

Derivational Morphology is the study of word formation processes which occur in the lexicon.

According to Jackson (1985:34), the term derivational refers to the creation of new words by

means of the addition of an affix to a stem. Derivation is a lexical process which actually forms a

new word out of an existing one by the addition of derivational affix. For an instance the suffix –

ance and –ion may be added to verbs accept and instruct to realize acceptance and instruction. In
view of this, derivational morphology studies the way in which new items of vocabulary can be

built up out of combination of element.

Derivational morphemes are lexically introduced. In the lexicon, there are rules which attach

morphemes to stems and words to form new words. The words production, management and

remarkable are lexically derived from the words produce, manage and remark. The output of

lexical word derivational is the input to syntax. Production, management and remarkable are

inserted into the phrase markers as words at the level of deep structure.
Section 2.1: Morphemic Awareness:

More recently, morphological awareness has begun to receive attention as another linguistic skill

that impacts language learning. According to Carlisle (2000) it is the ability to parse words and

analyze constituent morphemes for the purpose of constructing meaning. Morphemes are the

smallest units of meaning in our language. Given that morphemes occur in spoken and written

language, morphological awareness necessarily involves an awareness of both spoken and

written morphemes, including an understanding of what written affixes (i.e., prefixes and

suffixes) look like orthographically and the rules that govern how affixes attach to base words or


Guo, Y. & etal (2011) are of the view that morphological awareness is the explicit knowledge of

the way in which words are built up by combining smaller meaningful units, such as prefixes,

roots, and suffixes (p. 160). Invariably, morphological awareness helps learners to identify the

smallest meaningful units of language such as free and bound morphemes as well as inflectional

and derivational markers. This is especially important when learners often have difficulty in

reading and grasping academic vocabulary, partly due to the fact that there are many

phonological and morphological differences between English and many other languages..

According to Kuo and Anderson (2006), “Morphological awareness comprises primarily

knowledge about the pairing of sound and meaning in a language and the word formation rules

that guide the possible combination of morphemes. For example the word „beautiful‟, learners

who are morphologically aware understand the relationship between the base beauty and the

suffix -ful, their individual meanings, and how they can be combined to form the word beautiful.

They would further understand the parallels to other words ending in –ful, for example healthful,

purposeful, graceful, etc.

Bellomo (2009) defines morphological analysis as “the process of breaking down

morphologically complex words into their constituent morphemes (word meaning parts)” (p. 45).

It further involves understanding the function of the component morphemes. To return to our

example, the morphologically aware learner knows, if only subconsciously, that words ending in

–ful are usually adjectives, and are generally interpreted as “full of X”, etc.

Apel (2014) argues for a more comprehensive definition of morphological awareness that

includes awareness of spoken and written forms of morphemes as well as awareness of the

meaning of affixes and changes in meaning, spelling, and syntactic class that affixes bring to

stem words. For example the word operate functions as a verb whereas operation as a noun. Such

a definition according to him helps explain how morphological awareness helps in language


Section 2.2: Relevance of Morphological Awareness (MA) to the knowledge of English


Recent research suggests that learners with an awareness of word-formation processes tend to

have larger vocabulary and better reading comprehension (Kieffer and Lesaux, 2008; Kieffer and

Lesaux, 2012a/2012b), and by extension better writing (Templeton, 2012).

In context, morphological analysis can help anybody to infer the meaning of some words, and, at

the same time, to learn new words easier than without it. Whether they are words we see in signs

on the street, or read in a written text, or hear in spoken messages. Knowing the terminations of

the words and its meanings can come in handy for English Teachers and students when they do

not know exactly the meaning of some words or they do not have a dictionary at hand.

The importance of being used to affixes and suffixes and the role they play in words helps the

English learners see the flexibility of language. With morphological knowledge, students can

take the notion of the meaning in the word “like” and transform it into a number of possibilities
(unlike, likely, unlikely, likable, unlikable, likeness, unlikeness) to express their message more

accurately and precisely.

Morphological awareness can help English language students to familiarize with lexical

derivations and with the meaning or morphemes. They will be able to distinguish, for instance,

that the suffixes “-ment” or “-ness” form a noun, or that the suffix “-ly” forms an adverb.

Ultimately, thye will be able to realize that, at some extent, the English language has a certain

morphological logic people have to observe, know in order produce new words. These new

words, reminds us of what we could call, in Chomsky‟s words, the transformational-generative

morphology, on the ability that we humans would have to perfectly produce and understand

words we‟ve never hear before if we already understand the roots.

It is unarguably that the students of English need to establish a sound knowledge base in

understanding the structure of words and word formation processes. Developing an awareness of

English morphology becomes imperative as this will enable learners understand how words

enter a language, what they consist of and how they are formed by combining prefixes, suffixes,

and roots.

Section 2.3: Significant contributions of morphology to the study of English Language

Morphology, the study of meaning, forms and structure of words is of very pivotal both to the

study and understanding of English language. English morphology includes knowledge of both

derivational and inflectional morphemes. While an awareness of inflectional morphology

develops grammatical accuracy, an awareness of derivational morphology plays a significant role

in developing the lexicon.

The significant contribution of morphology to the study of English Language is outlined thus:
a. The Contribution of Morphology to Word Recognition (English words)

All languages have a set of words which is the basis to understand and make sentences (Miller,

1991). Morphology has vital impact on the formation, meaning and structure of English words; it

alludes to the utilization of or the investigation of morphemes, the parts of words that pass on

significance. Morphemes as a constituent structure of words play a pivotal role both in word

processing. It underlies the productivity of the word formation process as well as fits into the

syntactic frame of a sentence.

In terms of English, morphemes supply the crude materials for making new words, and the

dexterity of morphemes gives some portion of the generative force of the English Language.

Numerous new words are promptly reasonable on the grounds that they are made out of well-

known morphemes. For example the –er morpheme which often denotes performer of an action

(noun) when added to an action word can be used to create different new words such as singer,

dancer, farmer, learner and others. Also, the inflectional markers such as –en (past participle) –

ed/d ( past tense), -es/s (plural marker), -ing ( progressive and gerundive ) all help in recognition

of English words.

More than half of the words in English are morphologically complex (Anglin, 1993; Goulden,

Nation, & Read, 1990; Nagy & Anderson, 1984). Morphologically complex words are more

common in written language (and especially academic language) than in spoken language, and

the proportion of such words increases as frequency decreases. Thus, with each grade children

encounter an increasing number of morphologically complex words. The majority of these have

meanings that can be inferred from the meanings of their component parts (Nagy & Anderson,

1984), and so recognizing the morphological structure of words should aid children in

interpreting and learning them. And in fact, children‟s awareness of the morphological structure

of words has been found to be correlated with their vocabulary knowledge.

b. The Contribution of Morphology to Vocabulary Development

Vocabulary gives us the opportunity to obtain the knowledge, to produce and comprehend the

language (Anglin, 1993; Laufer and Nation, 1999). Vocabulary learning is subjectively

requesting, consolidating the capacity to guide implications and realistic structures, the capacity

to insert words into sentential and talk structures, and the capacity to apply words to its present


Kuo and Anderson (2006) recommended that morphological mindfulness is interlaced with

different parts of metalinguistic mindfulness and etymological capability, particularly

phonological mindfulness, syntactic mindfulness, and vocabulary information. They also added

that morphological awareness in English becomes an increasingly important predictor of reading


Anglin (1993) suggested that readers can take part in morphological investigation to break down

new words into constituent morphemes and in this way build their vocabulary items.

Nagy and Anderson (1984) estimate that 60% of the unfamiliar words a reader encounters in text

have meanings that can be predicted on the basis of their component morphemes. A reader with

a better grasp of word formation processes will be able to infer the meanings of these words and

will therefore learn more of them, as well as understand the text better.

Research in the field has shown the importance of morphological awareness to understanding

words and building vocabulary; it has shown that that more successful word-learners use

morphological analysis to understand and learn new words. It has also shown that, for the

acquisition of new vocabulary in English, learners, regardless of age or native language, benefit

from morphological awareness and morphological awareness training.

To this end, morphological knowledge presumably contributes to the process of remembering

word meanings after the meaning has been inferred or explained, hence aiding the process of

building the lexicon.

c. The Contribution of Morphology to Reading

The knowledge of morphology is correlated with reading ability. However, the relationship

underlying this correlation is complex; knowledge of morphology may contribute to reading

ability in a number of ways. This is because a substantial proportion of the words in English have

meanings that are predictable from the meanings of their parts (Nagy & Anderson, 1984). For an

instance –er morpheme attached the verb can be predicted to be a noun (the doer of an action).

Also, knowledge of morphology is believed to play an important role in vocabulary growth

which in turn impacts reading comprehension.

d. Contribution to Writing

Another utility of morphology is that it helps us to have better writing skills. Knowledge of

lexical morphology could help a writer manage syntactic choices by assisting with the fluent

change of verbs into nominalizations, or the reverse, via manipulation of suffixes. Examples:

correct correction, agree agreement, beauty beautify, national nationalize

Additionally, morphological instruction has also been shown to improve learner's use of

morphologically complex forms in sentences and in multi-sentence written responses.

Obviously, learners use their morphological skills not only to retrieve words they know but also

to construct novel morphological forms to fit the developing syntax of their sentences for

example solidize, presumably by analogy with crystallize. If students can manipulate words that
they already know by altering suffixes, they may be better able to express their intended meaning

more precisely and succinctly. Thus, morphemes may serve as a bridge that relates the word

level to the sentence level, with word-level manipulations assisting with sentence-level syntax.


Consequently, morphology plays a significant role to the knowledge of English Language as

successful word-learners use morphological analysis to understand and learn new words,

improve their reading and writing skills. Conclusively, morphology is a valuable instructional

tool for learning English language.


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