Compare the traditional eight parts of speech to the twelve morphological classifications found in structural linguistics.  What are the differences and the similarities between the two systems of...

Compare the traditional eight parts of speech to the twelve morphological classifications found in structural linguistics.  What are the differences and the similarities between the two systems of classification?

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Structural linguistics

Morphological sets are part of the paradigmatic structure of language, which is itself a component of the langua element of structural linguistics. Morphological word sets are distinguished by groups of morphemes that are related to a single root morpheme with each variation of morphological root in the set having the same meaning but providing a different aspects of that meaning, as illustrated by the morphological set eat, eats, eating, ate, eaten. [This is different from paradigmatic word sets in which phonological units of meaning change the paradigmatic set as in: pin, bin, din, shin, kin.]  

Traditional eight parts of speech

The traditional eight parts of speech are a component of notional (or semantic) grammars in which words are grammatically described by the semantic function they fill, such as "a word that describes nouns" (adjective). The concept of eight parts of speech has been useful for teaching English to school children but is inadequate for linguistic study because the parts of speech are only poorly defined, as is well illustrated by the awkward difficulty in defining the noun part of speech: an object (a thing), a state of being, an abstract concept, a feeling or an event. According to notional grammar, the eight semantic parts of speech are:

  1. Noun: thing, abstraction, state, etc.
  2. Verb: action, state of being (am, is, was, be etc).
  3. Adjective: describes or modifies a noun (which is itself ill-defined).
  4. Adverb: describes or modifies three parts of speech: a verb, an adjective, an adverb.
  5. Pronoun: takes the place of, or stands in for, a noun.
  6. Conjunction: connects words and connects groups of words
  7. Preposition: shows the relationship between a noun (or pronoun) and another word in the same sentence.
  8. Interjection: a lexically meaningless word that interrupts syntax and grammar to express strong emotion.


Morphology is the study of the composition of words used in language, which is called parole in structural linguistics. Morphology identifies the components morphemes, the component units of meaning, in words and analyzes their structure in order to know their syntactical role in linguistic structure. For insatnce, proudly and pride, though related, have different morphemes and function differently syntactically in a sentence: He proudly strutted the source of his paternal pride. In the first, proudly describes how the man strutted while pride identifies a feeling he possessed.

Twelve morphological classifications

The twelve morphological classifications are the twelve component morpheme parts that construct morphological units of meaning. They are as follows:

  • morpheme: smallest meaningful, or meaning bearing, units of language
  • affix: a morpheme attached, or affixed, to another morpheme
  • simple words: a word comprising only one morpheme (putt)
  • complex word: a word comprising two or more joined morphemes (putt-er)
  • word: the smallest independent unit of language (a word may be comprised of one or many units of meaning, i.e., one or many morphemes, e.g., the words handedly and handedness are comprised of three morphemes each, hand-ed-ly, hand-ed-ness, while the words go and up are comprised of one morpheme each)

Types of morphemes

  • free morpheme: a morpheme that can stand alone without a root
  • bound morpheme: a morpheme that must be affixed to a word, like English plural forms -s and -es
  • root morpheme: the morpheme-base to which bound morphemes can be affixed

Types of affixes

  • prefix: a morpheme affixed to the front of a root morpheme (re-join)
  • suffix: a morpheme affixed to the back of a root morpheme or another morpheme (post-ed, nat-ion-al)
  • infix: a morpheme that is affixed (or infixed) into the word or root (not common in English, only seen in made-up words like "abso-bloomin'-lutely")
  • circumfix: a two-part morpheme with one part affixed at the front of a word and the other part affixed at the back of the word (not common in English; seen in Dutch and Africaaner past tense like ge-smelt-er)

Differences and the similarities between the two systems

The differences are greater than the similarities. Morphological classification describes the parts of words, the units of meaning, while parts of speech describe the usage function, or the syntactical function, words fulfill. These are very different.

Morphology is used to construct words from morphological parts that are then used in syntactical context, while the parts of speech are used to construct sentences that provide conceptual context in parole, which is the expression of speech. This too is very different: the function of the parts of speech is built up out of the function of morphology; morphology is the bedrock of grammatical parts of speech.

One similarity is that the work of morphological construction, the work of attaching affixes to root morphemes, creates words that correspond to the eight parts of speech and are, after their formation, used to fulfill syntactical needs for the parts of speech. For example, the suffix -less can be affixed to the root morpheme help to form helpless which is used in grammatical syntax as the adjective part of speech to describe a person (or animal).