Morphology and syntax

The study of the internal structure of words, and how they relate to one another in a sentence.

Free and bound
The Minimalist Program

Defining morphology and syntax

Morphology and syntax are two branches of linguistic study that focus on the structure of words and sentences, respectively. Morphology is the study of the internal structure of words and the rules by which words are formed. Words in a language can be composed of smaller units called morphemes, which are the smallest units of meaning in a language. For example, the word “unhappiest” is composed of three morphemes: “un-“, “happy-“, and “-est”.

Syntax, on the other hand, is the study of the rules that govern the way words are put together to form sentences. Syntax is concerned with how words are combined to form phrases and clauses, and how these phrases and clauses are combined to form complete sentences.

One of the key concepts in syntax is the idea of a sentence being composed of a set of constituents, or building blocks, that are combined according to a set of rules. These rules specify the order in which the constituents appear in a sentence, as well as the relationships between them. For example, in English, the subject typically appears before the verb in a sentence, and the object typically appears after the verb.

The distinction between morphology and syntax can be seen in the way different languages express complex meanings. For example, Spanish uses suffixes such as “-é”, “-ás”, or “-á” to indicate future tense; “comer” means “to eat”; “comeré” means “I will eat.” This is an example of using a morphological process to convey a complex meaning. On the other hand, English uses a separate word “will” for the same purpose.

Thus, English expresses the future tense using syntactic means. Both morphology and syntax involve rules for combining elements within a language, but different languages use different means of expressing the same function (e.g. future tense).

Morphemes: The building blocks of words

Morphemes are the smallest units of meaning in a language and are the building blocks of words. A single word can be composed of one or more morphemes. Morphemes can be divided into two categories: free morphemes and bound morphemes. Free morphemes are morphemes that can stand alone as words, such as “dog”, “run”, or “tree”. Bound morphemes, on the other hand, cannot stand alone as words, but must be combined with other morphemes to form words, such as “un-” in “unhappy”, “-s” in “dogs”, or “-ness” in “happiness”.

Prefixes are bound morphemes that are added to the beginning of a word, while suffixes are bound morphemes that are added to the end of a word. Morphemes carry meaning, and the meaning of a word is determined by the combination of its morphemes. For example, the prefix “un-” in “unhappy” negates the meaning of the word “happy”, while the suffix “-ness” in “happiness” changes the word from an adjective to a noun.

The combination of morphemes into larger structures creates complex words. For example, the English word “reapproval” consists of three morphemes: “re-“, “approve”, and “-al”. First, the prefix “re-“, which means “back” or “again”, combines with the verb “approve”, yielding “reapprove”, which means “to approve again”. Then, the nominalizing suffix “-al” combines with the verb “reapprove”, turning it into the noun “reapproval”, which means “the act of approving again”. This exemplifies how different combinations of morphemes can produce new words.

Morphological processes

Morphological processes refer to the ways in which words are created, changed, or combined in a language. Prefixation involves adding a prefix to the beginning of a word in order to create a new word or change the meaning of an existing word. For example, the prefix “un-” can be added to the word “happy” to form the word “unhappy”, which conveys a negative meaning. Suffixation involves adding a suffix to the end of a word in order to create a new word or change the meaning of an existing word.

For example, the suffix “-ness” can be added to the word “happy” to form the word “happiness”, which conveys a noun form of the adjective “happy”. Infixation involves adding a morpheme to the middle of a word in order to create a new word or change the meaning of an existing word. Infixation is relatively rare compared to prefixation and suffixation, but it is found in some languages, such as Tagalog and Malay, or Khmer. For example, in Khmer, the agentive infix “-m-” turns “cam” (“to watch”) into “cmam” (“watchman”).

Other morphological processes include zero-derivation, compounding, and reduplication. Zero-derivation is a process whereby a word changes its part of speech without any change in form, as in the derivation of the verb “to google” from the noun “Google”. Compounding involves combining two or more existing words into a single unit; for example, “sunshine” is composed of “sun” and “shine”. Reduplication is another process that creates new forms by repeating an word or a part of an existing word. For instance, in Motu, “mahuta” means “to sleep” and “mahutamahuta” means “to sleep constantly”.

Allomorphy and allomorph selection

Allomorphy is a term used in morphology to describe the phenomenon where a single morpheme can have multiple forms, each with a different phonological shape. Allomorphs are different forms of the same morpheme that occur in different contexts.


For example, the allomorphs of the English plural suffix include “-s” (as in “cats”), “-es” (as in “masses”), “-ren” (as in “children”), and “-en” (as in “oxen”). Allomorph selection might be conditioned by various aspects of the language’s grammar, including phonological or lexical factors.

The choice between “-s” and “-es” is phonological in nature. The allomorph “-es” is used when the word ends in a sibilant (“hissy”) sound, including “s”, “z”, “ch”, “j”, “sh”, and “zh”, e.g. “kisses”, “churches”, or “lashes”. The allomorph “-s” is used after all other sounds. The choice of “-ren” and “-en” is lexical.

This is to say, only specific exceptional words take those plural endings (e.g. “children”, “oxen”). Unlike with “-es” and “-s”, the choice of “-ren” or “-en” is not related to phonology, but determined by the particular word.

Morphological typology

Morphological typology is the study of the way different languages form words. There are several different morphological types that have been identified in the study of language, including isolating, fusional, and agglutinative languages.

Isolating languages are languages that express grammatical relationships through separate words, rather than through inflections. In an isolating language, words are not inflected for tense, number, gender, or other grammatical categories. For example, in Chinese and English, each word typically represents a single morpheme, and grammatical relationships are expressed through word order.

Fusional languages are languages that express multiple grammatical categories through a single inflection. For example, in Polish, “kot” means “cat” and “kotom” means “to (the) cats”. Thus, the suffix “-om” indicates both that the noun is plural and that it is a recipient of an action. In a fusional language, a single form may contain information about multiple grammatical categories.

Agglutinative languages are languages in which each morpheme represents a single grammatical category, and these morphemes are combined to form long words. For example, in Hungarian, the word for “person” is “ember,” plurality is expressed with the suffix “-ek”, and recipients are marked with “-nek”. The work “embereknek” contains all these parts and means “to (the) people”.

Sentence structure: Phrases, clauses, arguments, and modifiers

Sentence structure refers to the arrangement of words and phrases that form a complete sentence in a language. Phrases are the building blocks of sentences. A phrase is a group of words that work together to convey a single idea, but do not form a complete sentence on their own.

There are several types of phrases, including noun phrases (e.g. “the morning”), prepositional phrases (e.g. “in the morning”), and verb phrases (e.g. “ate breakfast in the morning”). Noun phrases, for example, are made up of a noun and any of the adjectives and determiners associated with it.

Clauses are a step up in complexity from phrases. A clause is a group of words that contains a subject and a predicate. There are two types of clauses: independent clauses and dependent clauses. Independent clauses, such as “I ran”, can stand alone as a complete sentence, while dependent clauses, such as “if I ran”, cannot.

Arguments and modifiers are important concepts in the analysis of phrasal structure. Arguments are phrases required by other words to form a grammatical sentence. For example, “the” never appears by itself; it needs to combine with a noun to form a noun phrase, e.g. “the morning”.

Thus, “morning” is an argument of “the”. A modifier is a word or phrase that adds information to another word or phrase in a sentence, clarifying or refining its meaning. Modifiers can be adjectives (e.g. “tall”), adverbs (e.g. “quickly”), prepositional phrases (e.g. “in the garden”), and relative clauses (e.g. “which I bought yesterday”).

Word order typology

Word order typology is the study of the ways in which different languages arrange the elements of a sentence, such as subjects, verbs, and objects. Some languages have a fixed word order, such as English or Chinese, where the subject-verb-object (SVO) order is the norm.

Other languages, such as Japanese, Polish, or Latin, have a more flexible word order, with the subject, verb, and object able to appear in different positions within the sentence.

There are interesting asymmetries between different languages when it comes to word order. Around 40% of the world’s language use subject-verb-object (or SVO) as their basic word order. English belongs in this group, as this is the word order in basic sentences such as “dogs chase cats”.

Another 40% of the world’s languages use the subject-object-verb (or SOV) order, i.e. “dogs cats chase.” Other words orders (VSO, VOS, OVS, and OSV) are much less frequent. These asymmetries reveal a cross-linguistic preference for subject-initial sentences and for the verb and the object to be close together.

Some languages, such as Hungarian and Russian, have rich case systems, with nouns and pronouns taking different forms depending on their grammatical function within the sentence. In these languages, word order is often more flexible, as the case markers provide cues as to the grammatical function of each word.

Word order typology also reveals patterns in language change over time; for example, many Indo-European languages have shifted from an SOV word order to an SVO one due to contact with other languages.

Key theories and models of syntax

Several theories and models of syntax have been developed over the years. One of the earliest and most influential was Transformational Grammar, developed by Noam Chomsky in the 1950s and 1960s.

According to this theory, syntax operates by means of transformations that take an underlying deep structure and produce a surface structure. The deep structure corresponds to the semantic content of a sentence, while the surface structure corresponds to its syntactic form.

In other words, Chomsky argued that the syntax we use is rooted deeply in the meaning of what we are trying to say. Syntax, argues Chomsky, is a universal phenomenon, and all languages share common elements of syntax. This means that syntax and grammar are a part of our biology. This is as opposed to the idea that syntax, and language generally, is purely rooted in culture and convention.

In recent years, there has been a move towards more usage-based models of syntax, such as Construction Grammar and Cognitive Grammar. These theories view syntax as a set of learned patterns that are used to construct sentences.

The Minimalist Program

The Minimalist Program (MP) is a framework within generative linguistics, developed by Noam Chomsky, that aims to explain the structure of natural language syntax in the simplest possible terms.

It builds on the foundations of Chomsky’s earlier theories, such as Transformational Grammar, but takes a more minimalist approach by reducing the number of rules and principles involved in language syntax.

The central idea of the MP is that the ability to acquire and use language is based on a biologically determined capacity, referred to as the Universal Grammar (UG), which is common to all humans. One of the key features of the MP is its focus on economy principles, which seek to minimize the complexity of linguistic structures and to explain why certain structures are preferred over others.

Overall, Chomsky’s Minimalist Program provides a powerful framework for understanding the nature of human language and the mechanisms that govern it.

While the MP has been subject to much critique and revision over the years, it continues to play a major role in shaping the direction of linguistic research and in shaping our understanding of the human capacity for language.

Construction Grammar and Cognitive Grammar

While Chomsky’s Minimalist Program has been a dominant theory in the field of syntax for several decades, there are several alternative theories that have emerged in recent years that offer different perspectives on how syntax relates to other aspects of language.

Construction Grammar is one such alternative that has gained a significant following in recent years. Unlike Chomsky’s Minimalist Program, which focuses on abstract rules and principles, Construction Grammar posits that syntax is rooted in specific examples of language use.

In other words, Construction Grammar claims that syntax is learned through exposure to a large number of concrete examples of language use, and that these examples can be represented as “constructions” that embody specific patterns of meaning and form.

Constructions can be seen as the basic units of language, and all aspects of language, including syntax, semantics, and pragmatics as interconnected.

Cognitive Grammar is another theoretical alternative to the Chomskyan view of syntax. This theory views language as a cognitive process that reflects the underlying structure of thought.

According to Cognitive Grammar, linguistic units such as words and phrases are not isolated entities, but are integrated into complex structures that reflect the way the speaker thinks about a particular situation.

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