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Describing language
Describing language

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4 Free and bound morphemes

You are now going to look at the different kinds of morphemes. Before going into the details, and in case the terminology starts to sound complicated, remember that the most basic definition of morpheme is ‘word part’. Now, morphemes like potato, happy, four or turquoise can stand on their own as words. These are called free morphemes. If you use this type of morpheme in answer to a question, it tells us something specific:

Q: What’s this white stuff on top of the pie?

A: Potato.

Q: How did Lucas seem to you this morning?

A: Happy.

Q: How many children do Andres and Gemma have?

A: Four.

Q: What colour did you paint the walls?

A: Turquoise.

There are other morphemes which don’t do this. For example:

  • a.anti-, dis-, pre-, un-
  • b.-ed, -ful, -ing, -ly

This type of morpheme – also known as bound morphemes – can’t be used to answer a question. They do have meaning, but only when we attach them to another word. Look at the difference the morphemes in list a) make when we add them to the following words:

  • depressant – antidepressant
  • agree – disagree
  • cooked – precooked
  • lucky – unlucky

In each case, adding these morphemes at the start of a word causes a significant change in meaning. Most of the words on the right are the opposite of the words on the left (and ‘pre’ means ‘in advance’).

The items in list b) have a different effect:

  • walk – walked
  • harm – harmful
  • play – playing
  • stupid – stupidly

Adding these morphemes doesn’t change the basic meaning of the word on the left, but they do have an effect on how you can use the word.