Quick summary:

Words look like they should be one of the things linguists care about most, right? For some purposes, they can be, but when it comes to thinking about meaning, a lot of the time, words are just too big. They can have a number of meanings tied up inside them, and we want to look at those inner bits. What we want to find are the smallest pairings of sound and meaning we can find, where we can't cut away any more sounds without changing the meaning of whatever we're looking at. Those pairings are known as morphemes.

There are a lot of classifications for different kinds of morphemes, but this time, we discuss one distinction, between free morphemes and bound morphemes. Free morphemes can stand on their own, which means they can be said by themselves without anything attached to them, like tickle or hound. On the other hand, bound morphemes need to be attached to something for them to be able to be used grammatically, like the -er you use to describe what you do (like someone who hunts being a hunter). There aren't any hard rules about whether a morpheme or class of morpheme should be free or bound in any language, though. That's just something you need to learn.


Extra material:

If you're familiar with English, you probably think you have a sense of what kinds of morphemes are free or bound. Usually, for English, things like nouns, verbs, and adjectives will stand on their own, whereas pieces that serve a more purely grammatical function don't work that way. So the -s that you add to verbs (as in Tyrion slaps Joffrey repeatedly) can't stand on its own, and same thing for the -est that you put on superlatives, to show that something is the quickest or smartest or trickiest.

As we talked about in the video, making a categorical distinction between those more contentful morphemes being free, and the ones that adjust meanings or serve grammatical functions staying as bound, doesn't work cross-linguistically. But it doesn't even really work for English. We can find a good number of cases where morphemes that feel like nouns or verbs or adjectives can't exist as good freestanding English words. They need to be attached to something.

The most common one of these that shows up in discussions is the cran from cranberry. This morpheme definitely has its own content - it's not just serving some grammatical function, like the plural morpheme -s does in cranberries. It's telling you exactly what kind of berry it is. And yet, it needs to be attached to the berry part to be used properly. Berry can be a free morpheme, but cran can't. Just look at the following exchange:

Jon: What's your favorite berry?

Arya: Cran. They're so tart.

It's not that you can't get the meaning out of it, but saying cran without the rest of it is just strange - you're using the morpheme wrong. The same goes for other berry types, like boysen, or the specific meaning of the ones like goose or rasp. Something about berries seems to want to keep what type of berry it is strongly attached. These berry types need to be bound, not free.

Or another kind of example here are unpaired words, or words that used to have a positive and a negative version, but now only have the negative version left. Consider this list of words:

inept, ruthless, unkempt, feckless, discombobulate

We can pretty easily pick out the negative bound morphemes from here - in-, un-, dis-, and -less. We can also think of other English words - probably lots of them - where these are attached to morphemes that can stand freely, like indiscreet, unhappy, disappear, or faithless. We can use discreet, happy, appear, and faith just fine on their own.

But for the unpaired words, even if there existed positive versions of these words in the past, they're pretty much gone now. You can be whimsical and compliment your friends on how ept they are with their needlework, or with how kempt they look for a wedding, but they probably will have a hard time understanding what you're getting at. And good luck trying to combobulate yourself.

These are accidents of history. There's no principled reason for the negative form to have stuck around, and the positive to have died off, but there you have it: that's what happened. But it's useful to show us that there's nothing special about any kind of morpheme. Anything can be bound, and anything can be free. What your morphemes act like in this regard just depends what your language ended up doing. Even if you're in English, there's still a taste of those cran roots to be found.



So how about it? What do you all think? Let us know below, and we’ll be happy to talk with you about morphemes, variation between languages, and how morphemes, words, and syntax tie together. There’s a lot of interesting stuff to say, and we want to hear what interests you!

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