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What is the difference between morphs  and allomorphs?

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Adah Rubens eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In morphology, morphemes are the smallest, indivisible units of a word that have lexical and grammatical meaning. Morphs and allomorphs are the phonological manifestation of a morpheme. A morph (from the Greek word morphē, which means "form" or "shape") represents the formation of a morpheme, or rather its phonetic realization; an allomorph presents the way that morpheme might sound when pronounced in a specific language or its phonological realization. In the book The Oxford English Grammar by Sidney Greenbaum, the differentiation between morphs and allomorphs is described as follows:

When a morpheme is represented by a segment, that segment is a morph. If a morpheme can be represented by more than one morph, the morphs are allomorphs of the same morpheme: the prefixes in- (insane), il- (illegible), im- (impossible), ir- (irregular) are allomorphs of the same negative morpheme.

For example, the English plural consists of three different morphs, which makes it an allomorph because there are several alternatives:

  • /s/ - cats
  • /z/ - gloves
  • [əz] – wishes

As you can see, the "s" makes a different sound in each of the above examples.

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kvahedi eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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Morphs and allomorphs are both ways to describe the phonetic expressions (that is, the actual sounds produced) of the smallest meaningful parts of language in the study of morphology: morphemes.

A word like "unhappy" has two meaningful pieces: "un" and "happy," which together convey the meaning "not happy." Each of the meaningful parts is a morpheme, the phonetic expression of which is called a morph. Morphs can be further classified into "lexical" or "grammatical": lexical morphs are the meaningful roots, like "happy" or "man," and these are often free-standing words. Grammatical morphs modify the root in a meaningful way, but may not stand as a free word; in English, suffixes like [-able] or prefixes like [un-] are grammatical morphs. 

Allomorphs are phonetic variants of a morph. A good example of allomorphy is the plural suffix in English, which can have the allomorphs [-s], [-z], or [-ez] depending on the phonetic environment.

One way of looking at this is that any allomorph is simply what you call a morph that has another possible phonetic expression. 

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solonom | Student

Imagine that your language is phonetic - that you don't have to think how to "spell out" something - you just write down sounds as you pronounce them. Morph is simply a word in your sound-only language. The basic, undividable unit - the atom of the language. If you break it these smaller parts are not words of your language anymore.

At least most of them aren't. Language is not mechanical and sometimes there is a smaller word that may also have a meaning of it's own but other parts that were making the "bigger" word don't.

Tiny parts that usually change the word when they are added to its beginning or end get called "morph" as well since they have have very clear function and you can think of them as functional atoms. For example un- will negate everything it touches, -s will "multiply" everything it touches, -ed will "move to the past" everything it touches - the function.

Many languages have similar constructs and ways of creating new words. That's why these things got special names - they are quite universal and you can reason with them without having to stick to one particular language.

Now interesting thing starts happening. In the course of time and space some of these small, functional, additions start sounding slightly different when added to different words. In some languages they might eve be written with a different letter or a language has a definite rule how they change but there is no rational explanation why.

It simply developed in the course of a very long time or by people who are speaking the same language living detached from other groups. In some parts of Europe you can have variations between two villages.

So they are still de-facto the same (a modifier that creates plural or past) but they sound a bit differently - that is your allomorph (in Greek allo is "other" other form allo-morph).