Free and Bound Morphemes in Morphology

Greetings, Caravelers! Welcome back to the next post on morphology. If you're not quite sure what it is, I highly recommend checking out the previous post, Studying Linguistics for a Deeper Understanding of Language. But if you've got the basics down, then buckle up because we're about to explore the two fundamental categories in morphology: free and bound morphemes. These concepts are crucial to understanding how words are formed, and by the end of this post, you'll have a solid grasp of both. So, let's get started because in the next post, we'll be digging even deeper into this subject!

What is a Morpheme?

When we think of words, we tend to think of them as indivisible units that convey meaning. This is the definition given by the Cambridge Dictionary. However, upon closer inspection, we can see that many words are made up of smaller components that each have their own meaning. These smaller components are called morphemes. O'Grady, Dobrovolsky, and Aronoff (1989) defined a morpheme as the most basic element of language that conveys information regarding either the meaning or function of a word. An excellent example of this is the word "cats". This seemingly simple word is actually composed of two morphemes - "cat" and "s". The first morpheme, "cat", conveys the meaning of a small, furry animal, while the second morpheme, "s", serves as a marker for pluralization. Understanding morphemes is a crucial concept in linguistics because it enables us to comprehend how words are formed and how their meanings are constructed. That's where the subject of morphology comes in. It concerns understanding how words are formed from the smallest meaningful units called morphemes. Morphemes can be thought of as the building blocks of words, and by examining how they can be combined to create new words, we can gain a deeper understanding of how language works and how meaning is conveyed.

Free Morphemes

Once you have a basic understanding of what a morpheme is, it is important to continue learning about this linguistic unit. As an example, let's take the word "cats", which is made up of two morphemes: "cat" and "s". If we examine these two morphemes more closely, we can see that "cat" is a free morpheme because it can stand alone and convey meaning (Lieber, 2004). Additionally, it is possible for two or more free morphemes to be combined to create a single word. This is known as a compound adjective or noun. However, it is important to note that compound words can still have additional morphemes added to them. For instance, we can say "all-in-one printer", but we can also add the free morpheme "ultra" to make it "ultra-all-in-one printer".

Bound Morphemes

Suppose you have just learned about free morphemes and are thinking about the word "cats". If you pay attention to the morpheme "s" instead of "cat", you will notice that it is a slightly different type of morpheme. "Cat" is a free morpheme, meaning it can stand alone and convey meaning. On the other hand, the morpheme "s" is a bound morpheme. It does not hold meaning by itself and must be attached to a free morpheme to convey any sense. According to Lieber (2004), a bound morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language that cannot stand alone. So, it's worth noting that the distinction between free and bound morphemes is an important concept in linguistics and can help us understand how words are formed in a language.

Are Morphemes and Syllables Different?

It is important to note that the terms "syllables" and "morphemes" share a similar definition as both are units of language. However, it is crucial to understand the difference between them. Syllables refer to the units of sound in a word that contain a vowel sound and may also contain consonant sounds. For example, the word "cat" has one syllable, while "curtain" has two syllables. On the other hand, a morpheme is the smallest unit of meaning in a language. As mentioned earlier, the word "cat" has one morpheme and the word "curtain" has also one morpheme. Despite having the different number of syllables, the words "cat" and "curtain" have only one morpheme.


Aze Linguistics. (2019). Morphemes: How many? Free or bound? [Video]. YouTube.

CrashCourse. (2020). Morphology: Crash Course Linguistics #2 [Video]. YouTube.

Lieber, R. (2004). Morphology and lexical semantics (Vol. 104). Cambridge University Press.

O’Grady, William, Michael Dobrovolsky, and Mark Aronoff (1989), Contemporary Linguistics, New York: St. Martin’s Press.

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