This page is all about Morphosyntax, the linguistic term for grammar! Grammar often makes both adults and children shudder with boredom, but breaking down languages into its parts is an essential part of understanding how language itself works, and what makes languages across the word different.
On this page, we will be starting to dive in to the nitty gritty of how words are constructed (known as morphology) and what parts make up a sentence (known as syntax).
Morphology is the study of how words are formed.
In linguistics, we say that words are formed by morphemes, which is the smallest unit of meaning. This means that it is a word or part of a word that cannot be broken down into any smaller parts that carry meaning. The number of morphemes does not necessarily equal the number of syllables.
For example, let’s look at the word happy. It has two syllables but it can’t be broken down into any further parts that carry their own meaning. ha- or ppy or hap don’t mean anything by themselves. Therefore, happy consists of a single morpheme.
But what about unhappy?
It clearly contains the morpheme happy, but it also has another part: un, which has the function of changing the meaning of the word happy. Un is a prefix, meaning that it is something that comes at the start of a word to form a new word. Because it carries its own meaning, it is a morpheme.
un + happy : two morphemes
How can we break the following sentence down into morphemes?
The boys are singing nicely
Answer: The boy + s are sing + ing nice + ly
Let’s look more closely at the words made up of two morphemes:
The ‘s’ at the end of boys contributes its own meaning, as it tells us that there are more than one boy!
Similarly, ‘ing’ gives us information about the number and tense of the verb ‘sing’.
The suffix (a morpheme that comes at the end of a word) ‘ly’ turns the adjective nice into an adverb (meaning that it is describing a verb rather than a noun).
However, not all morphemes are created equal! A morpheme like boy or sing is known as a free morpheme because it can appear by itself, whereas a morpheme like s or ing must be attached to another morpheme and is therefore known as a bound morpheme.
If you are interested in going into more depth with morphemes, check out this video by Evan Ashworth:
As we’ve seen in English, words can be formed by combining lots of morphemes, by placing suffixes and prefixes around a root (the base part of a word that can stand by itself).
For example, the word discontentedness consists of the prefix dis, the root content and the suffixes ed and ness.
However, compared to a lot of other languages, English words are pretty short!
Let’s look at this word from Murrinh-Patha, an Australian language spoken in the Northern Territory.
Wurdamnginthadhawiweperlwardagathu“then the two non-siblings, at least one of whom was female, spoke out in unison”
c.f. Kelly and Nordlinger (2015)
In English, we need 15 words to express what Murrinh-Patha speakers can do in one! Many other Australian languages display this feature.
On the other end of the spectrum, some languages only have a maximum of one or two morphemes per word. This means that in order to indicate things like plurals or the tense of a verb, you won’t add a morpheme to a root like we would in English.
In Vietnamese, if you wanted to indicate a plural, you would simple add another word in front of the noun, rather than modifying the noun as we would in English. For example, ‘người’ is person, ‘những người’ is more than one person.
Consolidate: Watch this video from Crash Course
Now we’ve examined how words are made, we’re going to look at how they are put together into a sentence. Particularly, we’re going to focus on the tools that different languages use to communicate grammatical relations i.e. who is doing what to whom.
Confused? Let’s look at an example from a language you’re probably pretty familiar with if you’re reading this page.
- “The woman bit the cow”
Quiz: In this sentence from English, who is doing the biting?
a. The cow
b. The woman
Answer: a. the woman.
This probably seems pretty obvious to you, but what in this sentence tells you that it is the woman and not the cow that is doing the biting?
In an English sentence, we can tell what is doing the action (known as the subject) and what receives the action (known as the object) by the word order. The subject will always come before the verbs, and the object will always come after the verb. A sentence like “the woman the cow bites” would be ungrammatical.
This type of sentence structure is known as Subject – Verb – Object, or SVO and is shared by many languages over the word, particularly European languages. Many languages use word order to signal grammatical relations in a sentence.
However, the most common type of word order across the world is actually Subject – Object – Verb (SOV). This is found in languages such as Japanese, Korean, Urdu, Mongolian, Ainu and Turkish.
Let’s look an example from Turkish.
‘kadın kitabı okudu‘The woman read the book
However, the sentence translates literally to ‘the woman the book read’, because Turkish uses SOV word order.