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Jeff
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Joined: 28 Dec 2009
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 10, 2010 12:46 am
Post subject: Difference between a morpheme and a word
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After a few Google searches, I still don't understand what the difference is between a word and a morpheme, besides the spacing.

What's the difference between "like water" and "waterlike"? What's to say that the first one is two words--a preposition and a noun--as opposed to one word with two morphemes (a prefix before the noun); and what's to say that the second one is one word, a noun with a suffix, instead of two words (a noun and a postposition)?

I never understood it when I'd read that a language expresses whole sentences in one word, and then they'd show you the breakdown of the word morpheme by morpheme. Look, I can express the sentence "the cat jumps over the wall" in one word, too! "Thecatjumpsoverthewall."

In my mind at least, this question is connected to one I asked at the Wikipedia Reference Desk (link below--I know, I know, I've already gotten the Wikipedia lecture).
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Reference_desk/Archives/Language/2009_September_7#Difference_between_agglutinative_and_isolating_languages


Anyway, I was thinking about this because I never know when writing down stuff in a language I'm learning, a Mixtec dialect, whether I should separate it or not. E.g., and forgive my lack of glossing knowledge:

jino de
(run) (3rd person masc. sing. formal)
He runs

Do I write "jinode" or "jino de"? (I decided to go with "jino-de," but to make everything worse I read somewhere that what initially appear to be verb conjugations in Mixtec actually turn out to be a kind of pronoun on further investigation. My only solace is the number of dialects, which makes it likely that few enough people have studied this particular one that no one will prove me wrong.)

Thanks.
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Corybobory
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 10, 2010 1:56 am
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Unfortunately, when you look at it this closly, what it comes down to is that the decision is arbitrary where to make the cut off between word and morpheme, and the it becomes just a case of knowing what is customary or convension. There is no hard and fast rule.
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Sumerologist
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Joined: 28 Dec 2009
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 10, 2010 3:26 am
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Corybobory wrote: Unfortunately, when you look at it this closly, what it comes down to is that the decision is arbitrary where to make the cut off between word and morpheme, and the it becomes just a case of knowing what is customary or convension. There is no hard and fast rule.


Indeed, and in certain theories, e.g. in cognitive grammar no sharp boundary is set up between words and (other) morphemes.
Anyway, I think a number of (distributional etc.) differences can be made between a (proto)tipical lexeme and a (proto)tipical inflectional morpheme.
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Jeff
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PostPosted: Wed Feb 10, 2010 7:43 pm
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Sumerologist wrote: Anyway, I think a number of (distributional etc.) differences can be made between a (proto)tipical lexeme and a (proto)tipical inflectional morpheme.


In accordance with the supposedly Chinese proverb, "He who asks is a fool for five minutes, but he who does not ask remains a fool forever," I'll suffer my five minutes of fooldom and ask: what does that mean?
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Sumerologist
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 12, 2010 12:48 pm
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Are you curious about the differences? Smile
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Jeff
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PostPosted: Fri Feb 12, 2010 8:47 pm
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Sumerologist wrote: Are you curious about the differences? Smile


Yup. Mr. Green
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kuasi
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PostPosted: Tue Mar 09, 2010 7:14 pm
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jeff, i agree 100% with everything you've said.

and while it seems that the others who have commented here agree too (though, i'm interested to hear what else sumerologist has to say), there must be people out there who maintain that words and morphemes are different and that polysynthetic languages do in fact only have single-word sentences made up of multiple morphemes, rather than just multiple words like how we have in english. but where are those people? and what are their explanations?

don't get me wrong,,, it's entirely possible that there are very good reasons for saying that a language like english is made up of a single-morpheme words, whereas a language like inuit actually has multiple-morpheme words, but i haven't come across any of those good reasons yet.
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Jeff
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PostPosted: Wed Mar 10, 2010 8:25 pm
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Cool, I'm glad I'm not missing something blindingly obvious. I too await sumerologist's next post with bated breath (hint hint).
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kuasi
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PostPosted: Fri Mar 12, 2010 4:16 pm
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Jeff wrote: Cool, I'm glad I'm not missing something blindingly obvious. I too await sumerologist's next post with bated breath (hint hint).


yeah, there are a lot of things like that for me in linguistics., a lot of things that i have trouble understanding,,, to the point where it becomes difficult to put a finger on. i think there's been a lot of really misguided analysis of language, and when it comes to grouping languages typologically, a lot of oversimplification.

there might be some legitimate differences though between words and morphemes. for example, a plural noun is said to have two morphemes (the root, and then the plural marker). and so, while a word like "boy" has a only one morpheme, most linguists would agree that the word "boys" has two. but can the same be said for "man" and "men"? does "men" have an extra morpheme? i really don't even know what most linguists think for this, but if they do think that "men" has two morphemes, then i could see how it could be argued that there's no way that those two morphemes could constitute two separate words. ---- and there are other points that some linguists might argue, such as even the two morphemes in the word "boys" cannot be said to constitute two separate words because a single consonant (in this case "s") cannot be considered a word.

still though,, i definitely agree with you that there are many examples in so-called agglutinative and polysynthetic languages where there doesn't seem to be any reason for why they should view them as bound morphemes rather than words. and even in english,, there are morphemes that are said to be bound morphemes, but there's really no good reason why. the "-ing" ending is said to be a bound morpheme because it can't exist on its own as a word, where as a word like "of" can exist on its own and is therefore considered a word rather than a bound morpheme. but how is this not completely tautological??? whether or not the syllables are bound or free words is precisely what's in question. so how can it be used to answer the question??

in any case, one thing i think we should consider is that affixes come in different types. -- some change or restrict meaning (such as in words like "unhappy" and "restate", and even in words (though it's often not viewed this way) such as "walked" and "dogs" (both of which cause the root word to become more specific)).

other affixes also change meaning, but only in that they the grammatical category, which necessarily changes the meaning too. examples of this include "sadly" and "sadness". -- of course,,, a change from something like a verb to something like a noun isn't very specific because there are different ways that a verb can be transformed into a noun, which is why we have multiple endings, all of which might (for example) loosely translate to "changes a verb to a noun"., such as "employment", "employer", and "employee". and indeed, it's even possible to change one kind of noun into another kind of noun (such as in "childhood" or "friendship"). this might indicate that a word like "noun" is way too vague, and that actually that are all sorts of subcategories of nouns which should perhaps be considered different lexical categories on their own.

and finally, there are affixes that serve no purpose other than to relate one word to another on a syntactic level. english doesn't have much of this, but it can still be seen in pronouns, such as "he" and "him" (which do not differ in any way semantically or in what part of speech they belong to - they can only be said to differ in how they relate to another part of the sentence, in this case, the verb). and in the case of "who" vs "whom", we can view the "m" as a clear cut morpheme (much like the "s" in "boys"). but while it's easy to see how the "s" could theoretically be its own word (which is guess would have a similar meaning to "many", but specifically only meaning "more than one"), it's hard to view the "m" in "whom" in the same way, since the "m" really only is there to modify "who" (even though the same could be said for a word like "many"). --- another thing to consider is that marking nouns to show how they relate to a verb is an example of determiner-marker. we also have head-marking in english (such as the "s" in the sentence "he walks"), and in the case of head marking, it often renders the determiner (in this case "he") redundant (which is why in spanish one needn't say "yo camino", but simply "camino"). and in those cases, it can (sometimes) be argued that the morpheme being attached to the head serves really no different a purpose than the determiner itself., in which case, it goes back to the morpheme being indistinguishable from a word.

in any case,,, i haven't quite figured out yet whether or not these sorts of differences between affixes (and further, if there are any other types that i haven't thought of) are meaningful on any level, but if they are, then it might be relevant to the topic of how words and morphemes are fundamentally different (assuming they actually are). ---- hopefully though, someone else will come along and shine some light on the subject. the fact that no one really has might be an indication that the whole word/morpheme distinction is really nothing but bullshit.,, which, wouldn't really surprise me too much.
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Michael Glazunov



Joined: 02 May 2010
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PostPosted: Sun May 02, 2010 2:55 pm
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Hello Jeff,

Sorry for my late reply but I decided to post it since I haven't found any reasonable explanation to you question in the list of the answers above. Generally speaking, a word and a morpheme are both signs in the Saussure's terminology, i.e., we cannot separate them if we rely only on their meaning (however, we can guess of course about their status with a very accurate precision). The most appropriate way is to consider them syntagmatically, i.e., in a linear sequence. And in that case we will see that a prototypical word is a unit that has a quite strong connection between items that it consists of inside and a very loose connection outside. Your example "like water" and "waterlike" is quite demonstrative in that manner. You can insert as many words as you like in the first phrase and you fail in case of the second one. You can play with the sequence of words in the sentence, you can add new words, you can change the places of words, etc. All of this indicates to the loose connection, i.e., words are quite free in their distribution and morphemes are not.

Second point that I'd like to stress is that there are a lot of different languages and they present a certain continuum on one end of which there is a quite obvious opposition between the internal and external distributional freedom in word and morphemes that it consists of and on the other end there is no such division and it is quite difficult to make a distinguish between the word and a morpheme. In addition to that there are a lot of intermediate cases which are called "clitics" that represent some characteristics of a word and some characteristics of a morpheme.

Another thing which is quite interesting is that there is a common trend in any language that is revealed from historical point of view - some of the words tend to migrate to morphemes, i.e., most (perhaps even all) of the current morphemes were separate words before which eventually lost their word status and became morphemes.
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alicia721



Joined: 07 Oct 2011
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 07, 2011 2:29 am
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If a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning I can understand that ducks has two of them - one morpheme with the essence of duck and the other with the essence of plurality. If a morpheme is a string of letters then I can understand that ducks has two - duck and s. It's just fortuitous that the two results can be matched together. I have a problem with geese. I can't believe there is anything so fundamentally different between ducks and geese. I can eat both their eggs, they both like water and some even look the same. And, that makes me think that neither of the definitions for morpheme are correct. Anyone help?
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zaba
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 07, 2011 3:37 am
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Quote: If a morpheme is a string of letters then I can understand that ducks has two - duck and s.


Herein lies your problem! There is not always a 1-to-1 correspondence between meaning and form. This is called ALLOMORPHY.

Also: ox/oxen, tooth/teeth, etc.

The change of the vowel in goose/geese is a morphophonological process.
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Saraswati
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PostPosted: Fri Oct 07, 2011 4:22 am
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alicia721 wrote: I have a problem with geese. I can't believe there is anything so fundamentally different between ducks and geese. I can eat both their eggs, they both like water and some even look the same. And, that makes me think that neither of the definitions for morpheme are correct. Anyone help?


I think this is where it becomes important to make the difference between morpheme and morph. A morpheme is an abstract unit of meaning, while a morph is its physical realisation, i.e the sequence of sounds which expresses it. In most English words, the abstract concept [PLURAL] is expressed by the phonemes /s/, /z// or /Iz/. In irregular plurals it's not. But the word 'geese' still consists of two morphemes - two units of meaning - i.e [GOOSE] and [PLURAL]. In terms of its physical realisation it's just one word, because of certain historical factors to do with how the language has developed.
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