Utilities of Morphemes

by strassur

         Speaking comes to many of us naturally, as we learn from a young age by mimicking sounds and words of caretakers.  Any language can be difficult to learn, whether for first time as a child, or a new speaker to English. An easy method of teaching language to a student is by breaking down words into smaller parts and expanding our vocabulary as we progress. Morphemes are letters or words attached to a base that then creates a new word or enhances meaning. When learning English, a solid understanding of morphemes can be used to expand vocabulary and identify unfamiliar words.

            With an estimated 600,000 words in the English language, the chances of learning let alone hearing every word in use is impossible. Prefixes, suffixes, and compounds take simple words, or a base word, and add, reduce, or change the meaning entirely. If a student of English learned the simple bases of this language, adding a morpheme could increase their arsenal of usable words exponentially. A simple base word such as car is a free morpheme because it is a word that can stand alone.  When combined with the word port, car changes from a simple automobile to a “roofed, wall-less shed, usually projecting from the side of a building, used as a shelter for an automobile.” (Dictionary.com)

            Faith is a common word that a student may want to learn to describe confidence or trust in a person or a thing, such as the doctrines or teachings of religion. If a student knows the base word faith, they can add ly on the end to create a different word or meaning.  However, the suffix less on the end can diminish the meaning, like faithless, and add negativity. Ful adds a positive tone to the word, like faithful.  Jean Berko conducted a study while at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to determine if morphemes could be taught to a small child where the concept was understood and testable.  In the study, 1,000 of the most common words that a first grader uses through conversation, composition, letters and similar documents were evaluated.  The most promising area discovered were plurals and possessive nouns.  In the study, made up words were used, such as gutch, and the students were asked to make it plural.  Most could perform the task and even emphasized the suffix when pronouncing the word.  By having an understanding of what prefixes and suffixes can do to a word can also help a student identify an unfamiliar word.

            A young child learns simple one-word phrases to begin with, as in hot, toy, or milk. Over time they unknowingly add suffixes to change the meaning, making something more hot, like hotter or hottest, or adding an additional toy to a group, making toys. Once a child begins to read and their vocabulary increases, they will often come across words that are unfamiliar. According to an article in the Journal of Reading Behavior headed by author William Nagy, upper elementary aged children encounter 10,000 new words every year in print that they have not previously seen.  These are words that are not common in daily oral conversation and are difficult to decode. Nagy states that most of the words, however, are related to familiar ones through prefixation, suffixation and compounding. With an understanding of these morphemes and the uses of prefixes and suffixes, the reader can look to the base word, like friend, and know that the prefix un takes away from this, making unfriend or unfriendly a negative word.

            All the rules and practices of grammar are very important, including the exceptions and the difficult to understand rules, such as the dreaded silent e.  However, with extra understanding of base words and morphemes, a student of the English language may have more success decoding unknown words and expanding vocabulary to a much greater span so they can communicate more effectively.