Basic Morphology Concepts (Part 2 of Biblical Language Linguistics)

April 15, 2022 // The Biblical Languages Podcast


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In this episode of the Biblical Languages Podcast, Kevin Grasso shares core concepts that are essential for understanding morphology.


Morphology is all about morphemes. In the first episode on semantics, we defined a morpheme briefly as a meaningful unit of language. There are two parts to this definition. First, a morpheme is a unit, and second, it is meaningful. As a unit in language, a morpheme typically has a sound associated with it, whether that sound forms a whole word or not. For example, a word like 'caps' has two morphemes associated with it. One is the lexical item 'cap', and the other is the plural suffix -s, which is just a morpheme that attaches to the end of a word. There are all different kinds of forms that morphemes take across languages. We will just call them affixes, which is just any grammatical element that attaches to a word, whether it attaches to the beginning, middle, or end of the word.
Question of morphology: "At the most basic level of description, a grammar consists of a set of primitive elements and a set of rules for deriving complex objects out of these primitives. According to the view that is developed in this book, the primitive elements are morphemes, and the system responsible for combining morphemes into complex structures is the syntax.
What is the nature of the primitive units of derivations; i.e., what is the nature of the morpheme? How do morphemes relate to syntactic, semantic, and phonological information?" (Embick 2015)
Example sentence: The dermatologist hugged a pretty girl who was well-read in the latest journal articles on the breeding of oxen.


  1. Derivational vs. Inflectional morphology (Lexical vs. functional morphemes)
  2. Derivational morphology
    • Roots, phonological and lexical features (define lexeme)
    • Categorizers (discuss categories)
    • Derivational affixation (one category to the next)
    • Compounding
  3. Inflectional morphology
    • Nouns
    • Adjectives
    • Verbs

Derivational vs. Inflectional Morphology

Lexical morpheme - A meaningful lexical element that usually has an abstract meaning with at least some elements that cannot be logically represented (examples are underlined).
Functional morpheme - A meaningful grammatical element that usually has a logical meaning (examples are italicized).
The dermatologist hugged a pretty girl who was well-read in the latest journal articles on the breeding of oxen.
Derivational morphology is about the creation of words, or lexical morphemes.
Inflectional morphology is about the marking of grammatical elements on words using functional morphemes.
More definitions:
Word - "One or more morphemes that can stand alone in a language" (Lieber 2009:3)
Lexeme - "families of words that differ only in their grammatical endings or grammatical forms; singular and plural forms of a noun (class, classes), present, past, and participle forms of verbs (walk, walks, walked, walking), different forms of a pronoun (I, me, my, mine) each represent a single lexeme." (Lieber 2009:4-5).
Words such as 'article' and 'articles' have a single lexeme and the same entry in a dictionary.

Derivational Morphology: Roots

Root - a morpheme that contributes phonological and lexical semantic information to a word.
Roots may either be bound or free morphemes. A bound morpheme necessarily occurs with another morpheme, while a free morpheme has a meaning standing on its own. For example, 'derma-' in English necessarily occurs with another morpheme to form a word, while the root/word 'girl' can stand on its own.
Roots will sometimes have different statuses in different languages. For example, roots in Hebrew are always bound. They must occur with vowels to have a meaning.

Similarity in root does not predict similarity in meaning, e.g. journal vs. journey. But sometimes it does, e.g. journalism vs. journalist.

Open question: How can we tell the difference?

Derivational Morphology: Categorizers

Categorizer - a morpheme that turns a root into a noun, verb, or adjective.
  • In English, categorizers may not be audible, e.g. a kick vs. kicked
  • In Hebrew, categorizers are realized as the vowel patterns, or templates, e.g. מֶלֶךְ vs. מָלַךְ
  • In Greek, categories are revealed by inflectional morphology, e.g. ἀκο vs. ἀκούω
  1. A word consists of the semantics of the root plus the semantics of the categorizer it combines with
  2. Words with the same root but with different categories differ according to the semantics of the categorizer, e.g. צַדִּיק, צָדֵק, צֶדֶק

Derivational Morphology: Derivational Affixes

Derivational affix - a morpheme that turns a word into another word.
Example: dermatology vs. dermatologist, biology vs. biologist, etc.
Implication: Derivational affixes have meanings (ἀποκαλύπτω vs. ἀποκάλυψις)
See: Grimshaw 1990, Borer 2013, Lieber 2015

Derivational Morphology: Compounding

Compounding - the combination of two lexemes to form a new lexeme.
Example: well-read
Implication: combinations of words can be interpreted in different ways, e.g. can-opener vs. dog-walker vs. greenhouse vs. blue-green

Inflectional Morphology: Nouns

Noun: a word that can be a complement of determiners, quantifiers, or numerals and can be in an argument position of a verb.
Same morpheme may have different realizations: articles vs. oxen
Some nouns don't like plurals: #breedings
  1. The semantics of determiners, quantifiers, and numerals help to determine the interpretation of the noun
  2. A phrase like ὁ Ἰησοῦς is not possible in English (*the Jesus). Either the article must be different in Greek or proper names must be different.

See: Baker 2003, Borer 2005a, Alexiadou, Haegeman and Stavrou 2008

Inflectional Morphology: Verbs

Verb: a word that has a subject and can be inflected for tense.
'hugged' requires a subject (the hugger) and can be inflected for tense and may combine with other aspectual or modal markers, e.g. 'have/will/should/could/etc. hug(ged)'
  1. Verbs will always be predicated of something
  2. The interpretation of a verb interacts with TAM morphology
See: Baker 2003, Levin and Rappaport Hovav 2005

Inflectional Morphology: Adjectives

Adjective: a word that can usually modify a noun and combine with degree morphemes.
pretty vs. journal - 'pretty' modifies 'girl', but 'journal' can also modify 'articles'. (Some adjectives don't modify nouns, such as 'asleep', which can only be used as a predicate, e.g. 'The girl is asleep' vs *'the asleep girl')
Degree morphology helps to distinguish adjectives from verbs and nouns.
latest = late-est
  1. Adjectives can modify nouns in different ways
  2. Degree morphology (and scale structure) affects the interpretation of adjectives


There are many different issues in semantics and many topics that we could have covered to introduce the field. To recap, we focused our attention on the following:
  1. Derivational vs. Inflectional morphology (Lexical vs. functional morphemes)
  2. Derivational morphology
    1. Roots, phonological and lexical features (define lexeme)
    2. Categorizers (discuss categories)
    3. Derivational affixation (one category to the next)
    4. Compounding
  3. Inflectional categories
    1. Nouns
    2. Adjectives
    3. Verbs
We began by dividing morphemes into two basic classes: derivational morphemes and inflectional morphemes. We said that derivational morphemes created words out of roots or other words, whereas inflectional morphemes gave grammatical information about the word.
With regard to derivational morphology, we looked at roots, categorizers, derivational affixes, and compounding. Roots are the most primitive lexical unit, and all lexical items must have them, whether the root is bound or free. Roots combine with a categorizer to form a word in a certain category, whether it be a noun, adjective, or verb. A word can then be further modified by having another derivational affix attached to it to create a new word, either in a new category or in the same category. These affixes themselves have a meaning and constrain the possible interpretations of the new word. Finally, we saw that new words can also be formed by combining two words together to form a compound word.
Our final section was on inflectional categories. We said that the hallmark of the lexical categories was their grammatical properties, not their semantic properties. Nouns are words that combine with certain functional morphemes, particularly those that allow us to refer to something, and they are also used as arguments of verbs. Verbs are words that can have subjects or be inflected for tense. Adjectives are words that can modify nouns and
Beginning question: "What is the nature of the primitive units of derivations; i.e., what is the nature of the morpheme? How do morphemes relate to syntactic, semantic, and phonological information?" (Embick 2015)
In this short introduction, we have focused on the nature of morphemes as they relate to semantic information, though we have also touched on syntactic information as well. We said that lexemes basically consist of roots and derivational affixes, which either categorize a root or re-categorize words. Both roots and affixes have certain types of meaning that influence the interpretation we end up with in a word. Lexemes may fall into one of three grammatical categories: nouns, verbs, and adjectives. These morphemes have different semantic and grammatical properties. They combine with different functional morphemes and are, therefore, subject to different kinds of interpretation. When we know the basic meaning of these functional morphemes and combine them with the meaning of the lexical morphemes, we arrive at the interpretation of phrases, and we can then combine these to form whole clauses and, eventually, whole discourses. In other words, morphemes are the essential building blocks we need to understand language.

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The Biblical Languages Podcast hosts discussions and interviews related to learning the biblical languages and issues relevant to biblical exegesis. Episodes cover topics in 4 major categories: language acquisition, linguistics, cultural backgrounds, and exegesis.

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