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What are the aims and functions of morphology?

The aims and functions of morphology are to help us accurately read and understand component parts of words like roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Morphology helps us determine, for example, that the root word of homes is home, and the e belongs to the root word, while in the word catches, the e combines with the s to form the plural ending.

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Morphology is a Greek word. Morph means “shape” or “form,” and “ology” means study. With morphology, in the context of linguistics, a person studies the shape and form of words.

One of the answers to your question might be in the word itself. You could say one of the functions or aims of morphology is to study the form and shape of words. You could reason that studying the structure and configuration of human words leads to a greater understanding of human language and perhaps humans in general.

Another key part of morphology is morphemes. Morphemes are the tiniest elements of a language. They’re words that can’t be broken up or divided into smaller parts. For example, “cat” is a morpheme. You can’t make “cat” into a smaller word. “Cats,” however, is not a morpheme since you can make “cats” into a smaller word by cutting off the “s” and turn into “cat.”

Taking morphemes into account, you could claim another aim or function of morphology is to serve as a kind of microscope for language. The morphology field—and its concomitant study of morphemes—allows people to scrutinize words at their most basic, rudimentary level. It lets people look at them up close in their embryonic state.

It’s almost as if morphology helps people see the foundation or building blocks of language. You could argue morphology helps people figure out how bigger, more complex words are born.

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A morpheme refers to units of meaning, and they range from whole words to a single letter. The word dog is a morpheme because all three letters are necessary, in that order, to reference a canine. A plural -s (or -es) is also a morpheme, since it changes the meaning from one dog to multiple dogs.

Studying morphemes—the field of morphology—helps readers mentally break words into syllables for quicker and more accurate reading. Morphemes can also help identify a word's part of speech, punctuation, and definition. The morphemes -ing and -ed, for instance, usually signal tense; thus, the root to which these are affixed is usually a verb. In the same vein, the morpheme -ly typically signifies an adverb.

By learning Latin and Greek prefixes, suffixes, and root words (which are all morphemes), readers glean tips for pronunciation (ph = f; tion = shun) and meaning (ject = throw; mob = move; re = again, etc.) Thus when confronted with an unfamiliar word—such as expulsion—they can figure it out. The morpheme ex- means out, the root puls means to drive, force, or push, and the prefix -sion (or -ion) signals a state or condition. So, expulsion means the state of being forced out of something. Even when readers can't determine the exact definition of a word, morphology can help them make an educated guess. For example, the prefix un- means not, so the meaning will be opposite to the meaning of the root. The root hydro(a) means water, so words with this root will have something to do with H2O.

Knowledge of morphemes can help spelling too. A good example of this is the suffix -ed. It signals past tense, but it's pronounced three different ways (compare stopped, grabbed, and added). A writer needs to know that when spelling, say, talked, it requires an -ed even though it sounds like a /t/.

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Morphology, the study of morphemes is a subfield of linguistics that focuses on studying the smallest lexical units of meaning in language, which are the internal constituent parts of a word. These smallest lexical units of meaning are called morphemes. Variations in pronunciations or, more properly, realizations, of these morphemes, these internal constituent parts, are called allomorphs. Take the morpheme stem "read" as an example. This has two allomorphs: one allomorph is realized sounding like "red" for a past tense action; the other allomorph is realized sounding like "reed" for a present tense action.

Morphology aims to understand the internal constituent parts of words; to understand morpheme relationships; and, in so doing, to understand how a language building relates to words' constituent parts, their morphemes. Bear in mind that while English is heavily reliant upon morphemes other languages, like Vietnamese, are not; they have few morphemes. A good example of this aim is offered by Geert Booij in The Grammar of Words: An Introduction to Linguistic Morphology. As Booij illustrates, "correctly" can be properly understood as being related to "correct" through the affixation of the adverb forming suffix -ly. On the other hand, "hardly" cannot be properly understood if thought of as related to "hard" through the affixation of -ly. In these cases, -ly functions two different ways. In fact, morphologists say in these cases -ly functions as two different morphemes. Similarly, as Booij shows, "taxability" and "taxonomy" cannot be properly understood based on the shared stem "tax." They must be understood based on the analysis of the internal constituent parts, their morphemes.

The function of morphology is to identify individual morphemes, which may be words or may be parts of words, and analyze their meaning and lexical function. To illustrate, the function of morphology is to identify the constituent parts of words like, for example, "hibernation." This is from the Latin word hibernal, for "wintry," to which the Latinate suffix -ate has been affixed, with the second Latinate suffix -ion affixed thereafter. English "hibernate" is a verb. Latin hiber- is a verb. Latin suffix -natus was originally affixed to hiber- but was replaced in English by -ate. Latinate -ate forms adjectives that may also be nouns when affixed to verbs (hiber-). Latinate -ion forms nouns when affixed to adjectives. We now know the morphemes in (very complex) "hibernation" are three: hiber- verb, Latin stem; -ate adjective/noun forming suffix for verbs; -ion noun forming suffix for adjectives. This exercise illustrates the function of morphology.

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