16 What Is a Word?

If morphology is the investigation of how words are put together, we first need a working definition of what a word is.

For the purposes of linguistic investigation of grammar we can say that a word is the smallest separable unit in language.

What this means is that a word is the smallest unit that can stand on its own in an utterance. For example, content words in English (nounsverbsadjectives, and adverbs) can stand by themselves as one-word utterances when you’re answering a question:

(1) a. What do you like to eat?
Answer: cake (noun)
b. What did you do last night?
Answer: sleep (verb)
c. What colour is the sky today?
Answer: orange (adjective)
d. How did you wake up this morning?
Answer: slowly (adverb)

Words are also syntactically independent, which means they can appear in different positions in a sentence, changing their order with respect to other elements even while the order of elements inside each word stays the same.

In everyday life, in English we might think of a word as something that’s written with spaces on either side. This is an orthographic (or spelling-based) definition of what a word is. But just as writing isn’t necessarily a reliable guide to a language’s phonetics or phonology, it doesn’t always identify words in the sense that is relevant for linguistics. And not all languages are written with spaces in the way English is—not all languages have a standard written form at all. So we need a definition of “word” that doesn’t rely on writing.

The definition of “word” is actually a hotly debated topic in linguistics! Linguists might distinguish phonological words (words for the purposes of sound patterns), morphological words (words for the purposes of morphology), and syntactic words (words for the purposes of sentence structure), and might sometimes disagree about the boundaries between some of these.

Though words are the smallest separable units, that doesn’t mean that words are the smallest unit of language overall. As we already saw earlier in this module, words themselves can have smaller pieces inside them, as in the simple cases of cats (cats) or international (international)—but these smaller pieces can’t stand on their own.

To refer to these smaller pieces within words, we use the technical term morpheme. A morpheme is the smallest systematic pairing of both form (sign or sound) and meaning or grammatical function. (We say “meaning or grammatical function” instead of just “meaning” because while some morphemes have clear meanings, other morphemes express more abstract grammatical information.)

Words that contain more than one morpheme are morphologically complex. Words with only a single morpheme are morphologically simple.

Ask yourself if the word “morphology” is morphologically complex. Can you identify morphemes within this word, systematic pairs of form and meaning? Historically, this word is built from two morphemes borrowed from Classical Greek: morph- “shape” and -ology “study of”. People who know English don’t necessarily know Classical Greek, though. Regardless of a word’s etymology (the history of a word), the question of whether it is morphologically complex is a question about how people who know that word use it today. A word might be morphologically complex for some people, but morphologically simple for others. Neither of those options is “correct” or “incorrect”, they just represent different grammars.

In linguistics morphology is the study of word shapes. In biology, morphology is the study of the shape of animals and other organisms, and if you do an internet search for “morphology”, the first hits often relate to the biological meaning.

Our goal in morphology is to understand how words can be built out of morphemes in a given language. In the this chapter we will first look at the shapes of different morphemes (and morphological processes); in later sections we will review different functions that morphology can have, looking at divisions between derivational morphology, inflectional morphology, and compounding.


Adapted from:

Anderson, C., Bjorkman, B., Denis, D., Doner, J., Grant, M., Sanders, N. & Taniguchi, A. (2022). Essentials of Linguistics. Pressbooks. https://ecampusontario.pressbooks.pub/essentialsoflinguistics2/



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