Thursday, May 23, 2013

Cooking With Morphemes

In the linguistic field of morphology, a morpheme is the smallest unit of grammar. This is much like the atom in physics, at least until the discovery of subatomic particles. A morpheme cannot be broken down, at least not grammatically, into anything smaller.

There are two types of morphemes, free and bound morphemes. Free morphemes can operate independently and therefore, in effect, are words in their own right. Bound morphemes, unfortunately, cannot. However, in our opinion bound morphemes are far more interesting and deserve more of our attention.

Bound morphemes generally consist of affixes. Affixes are morphemes that attach themselves to words, hence bound. As part of a laboured analogy, we will be making a hamburger. If you're vegetarian you will just have to deal with it as today's post includes animal slaughter.

Those are some nice buns. 
You should already be familiar with at least two types of affix, prefix and suffix. If you don't know, a prefix is a morpheme that is attached at the beginning of a word and a suffix at the end.  Interestingly, the pre- in prefix is a prefix. Our prefix is the bottom half of our burger bun.

If a prefix is at the beginning then a suffix must be at the end. The s that appears at the end of plurals is considered a suffix since it alters the meaning of the noun, a free morpheme, by changing it from singular to plural. It's the bun lid, the top half of the bun, or the bit with sesame seeds on it... whatever you call the rounder half of a burger bun!

If the suffix appears at the end of the word but only joined by a measly hyphen, this is known as a suffixoid (the -oid is a suffix itself) or a semi-suffix. Imagine this as the horrible moment during consumption when the burger begins to slide away from its bun.

Affixes needn't go just at the beginning or the end of a word. They can even squeeze into the middle of a word. This is known as an infix. Although they are not very common in English, "abso-fucking-lutely" could be considered an example, albeit a rather crude one. In this example, the f-bomb counts as the burger meat, joining together our two word buns.

Look at that perfect cheese placement! Irresistible. 
A circumfix sits around the word, therefore operating much like the whole bun for our burger. Again, this is not common in English.

If the circumfix is the bun, then the interfix is again the meat. It joins two separate and unique stem words in beautiful unity. It's very similar to an infix except that in this case, the bun hasn't been sliced and you're using two complete uncut buns for your burger. Greedy!

There are a couple more things we could mention, but we're too preoccupied thinking about burgers at this point and are now on the hunt for a barbecue.