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What is a morpheme?



A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit in the grammar of a language.


Current approaches to morphology conceive of morphemes as rules involving the linguistic context, rather than as isolated pieces of linguistic matter. They acknowledge that

  • meaning may be directly linked to suprasegmental phonological units, such as tone or stress.
  • the meaning of a morpheme with a given form may vary, depending on its immediate environment.

Payne, T. 1997a 20–21

Examples (English)
  • Unladylike

  • The word unladylike consists of three morphemes and four syllables.
  • Morpheme breaks:

  • un- 'not'
  • lady '(well behaved) female adult human'
  • -like 'having the characteristics of'
  • None of these morphemes can be broken up any more without losing all sense of meaning. Lady cannot be broken up into "la" and "dy," even though "la" and "dy" are separate syllables. Note that each syllable has no meaning on its own.
  • Dogs

  • The word dogs consists of two morphemes and one syllable:

  • dog, and
  • -s, a plural marker on nouns
  • Note that a morpheme like "-s" can just be a single phoneme and does not have to be a whole syllable.
  • Technique

  • The word technique consists of only one morpheme having two syllables.
  • Even though the word has two syllables, it is a single morpheme because it cannot be broken down into smaller meaningful parts.

Morphemes may be classified, on the basis of word formation, characteristics into the following types:


Morpheme type




simple, made up of a single morpheme; a basis for compounding and affixation

  • yes/no
  • yes/no
  • may be complex, made up of one or more morphemes; a basis for affixation

  • yes/no
  • yes/no
    • affix

      • prefix
      • infix
      • suffix
      • suprafix
      • simulfix
      • circumfix


  • yes
  • no
  • simple

  • yes (phonologically)
  • yes (syntactically)

    A clitic is a kind of morpheme that does not fit well in the above classification system because it is phonologically bound but syntactically free.

      A morpheme is a kind of
    See also

    Crystal 1985 198–199


    Hartmann and Stork 1972 145


    Mish 1991 772


    Pike and Pike 1982 450

    Context for this page:

    Go to SIL home page This page is an extract from the LinguaLinks Library, Version 5.0 published on CD-ROM by SIL International, 2003. [Ordering information.]

    Page content last modified: 5 January 2004

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