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So let’s talk about positions. Knowing who you are and where you belong, what your role
is in life, makes everything feel a lot easier. And it’s not any different for language -
all the pieces that make up our words have their own work and their own places, and they're only
really happy when they’re filling those positions they were
born to hold. So let’s take a look at what those jobs are! I’m Moti Lieberman, and
this is the Ling Space.
So today we’re going talking about different kinds of morphemes. Morphemes are
the smallest pairings between sound and meaning, what you get when you can’t cut away any
more sound without changing what the meaning is.
We made a video about that already, so if you click here, you can go give yourself a
refresher if you need one. Last time, we talked about what a morpheme is, and what it means
for them to be free or bound.
But whether a given meaning bit can stand on its own, or whether it has to attach to
something else, is far from the only thing you need to know to ID a morpheme. Another
big thing is what kind of meaning those sounds attach to.
Let’s say you have some big, strong meanings: nouns like detective or dog, verbs like arrest or snoop,
adjectives like clever or short. All of these have meanings that are associated
to real characteristics out there in the world.
They tell you what things you’re talking about, what those things are like, and what
they’re doing. All that together is the heart of what you’re communicating - without
those parts of speech, we’d be just flailing about talking about emptiness. We call these
kinds of super contentful bits root morphemes.
If you’re thinking about English, you probably feel like these root morphemes are always
able to stand on their own. After all, when you think of things like camera or corrupt,
you know you can always get them out of your head and into the real world
without having to attach anything to them.
And it’s true, pretty much all the roots in English are free, but it’s not quite
all of them. Think about something like the huckle in huckleberry.
It’s definitely telling you what kind of berry it is, but it’s not like you can
use it on its own, like, “My favorite kind of berry is huckle.”
Or you can inflate or deflate a tire, but good luck flating anything. In some other
languages, roots always need to be bound to something.
Sometimes, that’s because the language calls for all of the morphemes, roots and not roots,
to be bound up together into one big word, like in Yupik or Chukchi.
So to say in Chukchi that you have a terrible headache, you’d use this whole sentence-y
word: t-ə-meyŋ-ə-levt-pəɣt-ə-ɹkən. But in many other languages, even if you don’t
bundle everything together, you still need to attach your root to something in order to get it pronounced.
Take a look at Japanese and its needy verbs. Verbs in Japanese are too shy to escape from
your mouth without bringing some friends along. Look at the verb for “take”, as in take a picture.
The root is [toɾ], but good luck finding that out in the world.
No, you get 撮る [toɾɯ] for take in the present tense, [toɾanai] for “don’t
take,” and [toɾe] for the command form, “take!” There’s always something attached
on the end; it’s never left all lonely by itself. Or take Arabic. In Arabic, the verb
roots are usually just a combination of consonants.
So the root for enlighten, for example, is just [nwr]. That’s not something you can
really pronounce easily. If you want to pronounce it, you have stick other vowels and consonants
in and around it in templates, which is how you conjugate in Arabic.
So you take your [nwr], and you put in some [a]s, and then you can get something like [nawara], “he enlightened”.
Or, add an extra [t] for [nawarat], “she enlightened.” Want present tense? That’s a different template.
Command? Another template. But you never ever just get the bare root by itself.
So we’ve tiptoed around talking about what the other morphemes are, the ones that aren’t
roots. These are the bits that serve other roles: telling us tense and number and gender,
or sometimes adjusting the meaning of the roots they attach to. We call these morphemes
affixes, and they come in a few different flavors.
Affixes are always bound – you mentally glue them onto the roots. And so we break
affixes into groups depending on where they go. Let’s start with the ones that come
before the root. These are known as prefixes, and there’s a lot of them.
Just think of some of your favorites from English – the [æntaj] in anti-Lamb, if
you’re against Lamb; the [sjudə] in pseudonym, to put the fake in fake name; the [dɪs] in
disappear, so whatever you’re talking about you know is all gone. Even the [pɹi] pre-
in prefix is a prefix; it’s the part you fix before the root.
Of course, prefixes aren’t limited to English – they show up in tons of languages, playing
a ton of roles. Look at Japanese again – there’s that [o] that makes the
nouns it’s attaching to honorific. So you don’t drink 酒 [sake] for alcohol; you
drink お酒 [osake].
Same with police officers – there’s that [o] in お巡りさん [omawaɾisan]. In Hebrew,
prepositions like in and to show up as prefixes, also. If you wanted to say “in school,”
you’d go for [bve:t sɛfɛʁ] בבית ספר. where that [b] is the part that means in.
But maybe you want to put stuff on the other side of the root. If you attach an affix to
the end of the root, that’s a suffix. Suffixes are actually more common across languages
than prefixes, and so it’s not really hard to find a lot of them.
That -ness that changes an adjective like dark into a noun like darkness? Or that -ed
that takes a verb like watch and lets you put it in the past tense like watched? Those are
suffixes. Or we can go looking in other languages, too. We’ve already seen some suffixes today -
the Japanese examples for [toɾ] were all suffixes.
Or let’s say we wanted to say in Spanish, “Veronica ate a small piece of marshmallow.”
That would be “Verónica comió un pedacito de nube.” That ito there is a suffix - it
takes the noun pedazo, piece, and makes it small and cute.
Or the suffixes that mark names in lots of Slavic languages, like Czech or Russian. If you’re
Russian, and your father’s name is Vladimir, then if you’re male, your middle
name is Vladimirovich, and if you’re female, your middle name is Vladimirovna.
So morphemes come with these options: before, and after. But what about… inside? Some
languages also have affixes that get stuck right in the middle of the roots they’re
working with. These are known as infixes, since they go straight into the word. Take,
for example, Tagalog.
Let’s say you wanted to say search, like Keith is searching the office for the gun:
That’d be “Hinahanap ni Keith ang baril sa opisina”. That’s with the verb [hanap].
But what do you say after the search, once it’s done? Now it should be in the past
The past tense morpheme is [in], but it goes in the word after the first consonant. So
it’s [hinanap], like “Hinanap ni Keith ang baril sa opisina”. So that -in- is an
infix. So now you’re probably thinking, do we have any of these infix things in English? The
answer is… well, we sort of have one, but it uses some profanity. We’ll tone it down for here, though.
This is using swearing as an intensifier, as in Wallace is fan-fricking-tastic at
basketball. So clearly, you’re sticking this fricking morpheme smack in the middle
of the root, fantastic. But the thing is, this does follow a rule - you know where this
morpheme should go, even if you’ve never thought about it.
So you know that it’s not fanta-fricking-stic. No, it has to go in right before that main
stress there, to make the word flow right. And that’s what this unique English infix
looks for. So when we’re trying to decide what kind of morpheme we have, we need to
think about what kind of meaning we’re talking about.
You’ve got your full main content, like nouns and verbs, as your roots; and you twine
around those roots with the affixes, wherever they go: before, after, or right in-fricking-side.
But however you’re doing it, there’s more to morphemes than just knowing whether they
can stand on their own.
So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space for this week. If you were affixed to to my
morphemes, you learned that roots are the most contentful bits of words; that English
roots are mostly free, but other languages have them all bound up; that affixes adjust the
meanings of the roots they’re attached to; and that affixes get different names, depending
whether they're attached before, during, or after the root.
The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Élise Prévost,
and it’s written by both of us. Our production assistant is Georges Coulombe, our music and
sound design is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is AtelierMuse.
We’re down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back over to our website,
where we have some extra material on this topic. Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and
Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe.
And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Fins despres!
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Roots and Affixes

3549 Folder Collection
Sh, Gang (Aaron) published on February 16, 2016    何雨晴 translated    Mandy Lin reviewed
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