Morphemes are the smallest pairings of sound to meaning that exist for language, and in our previous look at the topic, we talked about how to see what part of a word a morpheme is, and what it means for them to be free (i.e. able to stand as their own word) or bound (i.e. needing to be attached to another morpheme to be pronounced). But that’s not all there is to know about a morpheme!
Another important distinction to make between kinds of morphemes is between roots and affixes. Roots are the most important, contentful bits, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives. For English, most roots are free, but in other languages, like Japanese, Arabic, or Chukchi, roots are always bound, needing something to attach to them for them to be realized.
And what is that thing that roots need to attach to them? Affixes: morphemes that play some kind of grammatical role or adjust the meaning of the roots they attach to. Affixes are always bound; they need to be fixed to the root. They come in a few varieties. Most common are suffixes, which come after the root, and prefixes, which come before; if you’re in a language that uses affixes, you probably have both of these types somewhere. But those aren’t the only options! Infixes, which get stuck inside the root itself, are used by a goodly number of languages, too. There’s even one in English, if you’re willing to use some naughty words.
The three affix varieties we looked at in the video cover between them the majority of the affixes that exist in the world, but that doesn’t mean that they’re the only kinds of affixes we can find. There are other places that affixes can show up, too.
And places is the operative word for the first of the affixes we’ll look at here, circumfixes. Sometimes, there are affixes that are made of two different parts, and if you don’t have both of those sections, you haven’t really got the whole morpheme. Both parts are essential if you’re going to succeed, and they sandwich the root. Let’s take a look at a couple of examples from English.
These examples are the same circumfix, starting with en- and ending with -en, with the root going in the middle. (2) has a change in pronunciation, because bold starts with [b] and the [n] just moves forward to match the place, but when you think about the meaning, it’s the same - to cause someone or something to be more bold, or lively.
We can tell this is a circumfix because we can’t take off either half and still have it keep the same meaning, or even be a word at all! If you look at (2), you can see how both halves are really required: it can’t be embold, nor can it come up as bolden. Both aren’t words in English, and they don’t have the right meaning. They need both halves.
Circumfixes also exist in other languages. German has circumfixes for their past participles, as in these examples:
The example in (3) means “chopped,” and the example in (4) means “cooked.” The verb root, either hack or renn, goes in the middle, and then the past tense morphology sandwiches around it. Another circumfix!
If we’re not looking at the sandwich kind of morpheme, we can also look at the filling kind. Beyond infixes, which get stuck inside the root as a single chunk, there are also transfixes, which are multiple pieces that are spliced into the root. They differ from infixes in that they’re multiple parts, like the circumfixes, so without all the different segments that make them up, you don’t have the whole morpheme.
Think about the Arabic examples that we saw in the video, around the root [nwr], for enlighten. We talk about the [_a_a_a] as a template that takes the root [nwr] and changes it into a form like [nawara] for “he enlightened,” but that templatic form is a morpheme - it’s a pairing of sound to a given meaning. That template [_a_a_a] tells the listener that the verb should be thought of as being done by some third person singular masculine guy, and that it happened in the past. And the nature of the morpheme, getting slotted into the root, tells us it’s a transfix.
We can see other transfixes in other Afro-Asiatic languages, and particularly in other Semitic languages. So take Hebrew, for example. Hebrew has a number of these systems of transfixes, to express whether a given verb is active, passive, reflexive (so acting on itself), etc. Let’s consider the root חקר [χkʁ], meaning to explore or investigate. If we want to make it infinitive, like לחקור, “to investigate”, we get what’s in (5):
5. χkʁ li_ _ o _ liχkoʁ
root infinitive transfix infinitive verb
You just stick the sounds from the root into the infinitive transfix, and then you get your output form, the infinitive verb! And we can see with the other examples below.
6. χkʁ _a _ a _ ti χakaʁti
root 1st sing past transfix I investigated
7. χkʁ _a _ _ a χakʁa
root 3rd sing fem transfix she investigated
8. χkʁ ji_ _ e _ u jiχkeʁu
root 1st sing future transfix we will investigate
So affixes aren’t limited to just one piece - they can go in and around the roots they attach to. Morphology’s more complex a place than it can look at first glance, but it’s pretty awesome to see all the places meaning crops up.
So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about morphology, whether it's free versus bound, root versus affix, or derivation versus inflection. Or other morphology questions, too! There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you.