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Morpheme is a technical term in linguistics for the smallest unit of language that has a constant meaning or grammatical function. Such smallest units are often found as components inside words, which is why the term morpheme is the central concept in linguistic morphology . However, it is not to be directly opposed to the concept of the word , but can overlap with it: A word can be decomposed and thus composed of several morphemes, but an indivisible word also represents a single morpheme.



Morphemes are generally defined as the "smallest meaningful (linguistic) unit"; more precisely as follows: "The morpheme is the smallest phonetic or graphic unit with a meaning or grammatical function".

For example, the word tische , written ⟨Ti · sche⟩ and spoken / 'tıʃə /, is made up of two morphemes: { tisch } { -e }; { table } is the root of the word meaning 'furniture with top and legs' and { -e } is the ending with the function 'plural', [ plural ]. The word forests , ⟨ Wael · the ⟩ / 'vɛl.dɐ /, can also be in two parts of words, { Wäld } { -er }, be dismantled. The morpheme that makes up the word stem comes in two different forms, so-called morphs: { wald } and { wäld } for [ singular ] or [ plural ] (see also under word stem # stem change and morphological rules ). In the same way, the morpheme [ plural ] has different expressions: { -e } for table or { umlaut } + { -er } for forest , and other forms for other nouns: { Auto } { -s } etc.

By definition, a morpheme always has a meaning or grammatical function on the content side ( plerem ). On the expression side ( kenem ) it can either always be uttered in the same form (see "table"), or it can also have several variants ( allomorphs ) (see "forest - wood" or [ plural ]: { -e, -er, -s ... }).


The term morpheme was developed by Baudouin de Courtenay before 1881. Leonard Bloomfield adapted the term and made it widely known, but used it with a narrower meaning, so that for him the glosseme is synonymous with the modern morpheme. Its definition was only consolidated with Eugene Nida .

In contrast to the prevailing linguistic usage, the French linguist André Martinet calls the morpheme “ monem ” in the aforementioned sense . Martinet calls a free monem "Lexem", a bound "morpheme".

Until well into the second half of the 20th century can be found for morpheme and speech syllable as a synonym and stood next speech syllable and writing syllable as a special case of the syllable .


A morpheme is the smallest functional unit of language on the content and expression level in the language system ( langue ). Morphemes are abstract units of langue that are obtained through segmentation (i.e. through a process that divides the speech stream into individual constituents ).

Morph and Allomorph

Morphs are referred to as representation units ( Parole ) and a morpheme as a class of equivalent morphs (Langue).

Morphs that are variants of one and the same morpheme are called allomorphs or allomorphs to one another. Because they are classified, allomorphs are units of the language system (langue). For example, { dog } and { dog } (in canine ) are initially two morphs; once it has been recognized that they perform the same function for different contexts, they are considered to be two allomorphs of the lexical morpheme dog .

Grapheme and phoneme

Morphemes are phonetically as phoneme sequences and writing implemented as grapheme (unless a null morpheme was set). The classic definition of the phoneme as the smallest functionally differentiating unit must be separated from the morpheme definition as the smallest function- bearing unit.

The non-content, meaning-distinguishing elements of a morpheme are called phonemes when they are uttered aloud, and graphemes when they are uttered in writing (as letters, numbers). There are characters that correspond to a morpheme, for example digits or many sinograms , and are called logograms or morphograms .


The morpheme is not the same as the syllable, and so the traditional term “suffix” for an end-of-word morpheme is actually incorrect. Even if a morpheme could represent a syllable on its own (e.g. -er or -en in the examples below), the breakdown of the entire compound word into spoken syllables often results in a different syllable division:

; "Sailor"
Spoken syllables: "Seg-ler"
Morphemes: "Segl-er"
Speaking syllables: "zer-le-gen"
Morphemes: "decompose"

In German orthography, there is often direct competition between the division of morphemes and syllables when separating words at the end of a line. While in the German spelling before 1996 the morpheme was largely supposed to be kept together on one line, the new orthography preferred a real hyphenation.


The morpheme is different from the word. For a morpheme it is irrelevant whether it can occur independently or not; the word, however, is defined as the smallest form that can stand on its own. Words consist of at least one morpheme.

The word (you) laugh consists of the lexical morpheme { lach } and the grammatical morphemes [ tense, mode, person / number ] in the inflected formative { Ø Ø -st }.


A lexeme is an abstract unit that summarizes the meaning, phonetic / written image, grammatical features and possibly various inflected forms of a "word"; this term must therefore be distinguished from that of the “lexical morpheme”, i. H. a morpheme that has lexical meaning and can serve as a basis for marking grammatical information.


The spelling of morphemes and morphs is inconsistent. Often, morph (em) boundaries are marked with single dashes (-), but many authors use additional visual aids to demarcate morphemes.

Slashes ("/ ... /")
/ disassemble / / leg- / / -en /
round brackets
(zer -) (leg -) (- en)
square brackets
[zer -] [leg -] [- en]
square brackets in connection with capital letters
[ZER -] [LEG -] [- EN]
[zer -] [leg -] [- en]
curly braces
{zer -} {leg -} {- en}

Capitalization or small caps are mainly used for grammatical function morphemes and not for lexical content morphemes or morphemes. In the above example “decompose” the inflection ending { -en } is a case (morph) of the abstract grammatical morpheme [ infinitive ], the prefix { zer- } is a concrete derivative morpheme and { -leg- } is the lexical root .

Division into classes

Morphemes can be classified according to different aspects

  1. their verbal abilities in bases and affixes,
  2. their word status into free and bound morphemes,
  3. their function in lexical content morphemes and grammatical function morphemes.

Verbal ability

Grundmorpheme (also called "Wurzelmorpheme", "root", "base" or "cores") "are the indispensable lexical nuclei of words".

a, house, car , red, on

Roots come "as a rule", i. H. not necessary free before. The division into root morphemes and affixes is therefore similar, but different from that into free and bound morphemes.

Affixes are morphemes that are not base morphemes. These divided either according to their position in the word form in prefix , suffix , infix or circumfix or according to their function in Derivations affixe and flexion affixe .

Word status

The division of the morphemes into free and bound takes place according to whether they can appear freely in the sentence as words or not.

A free morpheme occurs as the only word form. In a strict interpretation, it is not part of an inflectional paradigm: { in, only, and }. Many authors also refer to morphemes as free when they appear as an independent word form - usually the nominal form - alongside others: { Mensch, Schön, Frucht }. In the first case, the term free means the independence of inflection ( cf.particle ), in the second the autonomy of meaning (cf. semanteme , lexeme ).

A bound morpheme never appears as an independent word form, but always only together with other morphemes in a word form. In a narrower sense, it is also required that the morpheme only gains its meaning from this connection.

Tied morphemes in the narrow sense are often inflected endings (e.g. { -en, -er, -st, -t }) or affixes in derivatives (e.g. { -lich, -sam, -ung }). In a broader sense also some lexical morphemes (z. B. {include raspberries } in raspberry , { chimneys } in chimney ) and syntactic morphemes (z. B. { bible }) to do so.

In German grammar, verb stems are often viewed as bound lexical morphemes, as they are always used together with an inflectional ending in German. (The imperative singular has an inflectional ending which occurs as a null allomorph { - } or as an allomorph { -e }. The inflective remains as an exception )

A bound morpheme needs at least one additional (free or bound) morpheme to be able to form a word; z. B. { ent- } and { -en }, which attach to a verb stem like { komm } and form escaped . A word like iniquity consists only of two linked morphemes. Such cases are common with morphemes that come from other languages ​​(such as { bio- } and { -logie }, which are two linked morphemes) or whose independent meaning has been lost in the course of language development.

Whether a morpheme is bound or free depends on the language in question. In German it means house and my house , in Turkish ev 'house' and evim 'my house'.


From a functional perspective, a distinction is made between lexical and grammatical morphemes: The lexical morphemes ( l-morphemes ) or content morphemes designate real or imagined persons, objects, facts. So they are morphemes with a referential function. Lexemes form the "basic component of a word". They form the stems or roots of the words, so they represent the basic inventory of the words in a language. The inventory of the lexical morphemes is open; H. expandable as required.

In the word “children” the morpheme { kind } is a lexical and the morpheme { er } is a functional morpheme.

The grammatical or functional morphemes ( f-morphemes ) or functional morphemes , also grammemes , however, do not form words, but change them according to grammatical rules and carry grammatical information. They are further subdivided into inflectional morphemes and word formation morphemes.

Inflectional morphemes or flexive morphemes indicate syntactic properties of the stem that they inflect, that is, they express its grammatical features.

{ t } in (er) geht-t expresses the attribute [ 3rd person singular ].

Word formation morphemes or derivative morphemes derive new words from existing ones and often change the word class or part of speech , i.e. their function affects word formation.

{ -ly } in happy .

Since indivisible words are also counted as morphemes, articles , conjunctions and the like may also fall under the grammatical morphemes.

special cases

Null morpheme

The null morpheme { } represents a special case . This is a morpheme that is not realized in sound or in writing.

A null morpheme can be justified, among other things, for descriptive reasons, for example when changing between inflection affixes and their absence in the paradigm of a word.

If you look at the declension of German nouns, you will notice that the nominative singular does not have its own inflection form. If the genitive singular is from house to { -es } ( house-es ), the nominative has no ending. If one wants to show an ending for the nominative singular as well, the form can only be house-∅ with { -∅ } for the zero morpheme. In this case it is not a zero allomorph, since the nominative singular never has its own ending. (In this regard, the substantiated adjectives such as employee, sick, injured person are subject to different rules.)

The null morpheme allows the inflection system of nouns to be represented uniformly with the word stem + ending.

Discontinuous morpheme

Another special case are the discontinuous morphemes, in which a sequence of separated morphs together form a morpheme. They appear in the derivative as well as in the inflection .

Bound Lexical Morpheme

Lexical morphemes also appear as bound morphemes that are not affixes. The verb stems are sometimes interpreted in such a way that they are only ever used in conjunction with inflection or derivative morphemes and never alone.

Confixes have a stronger lexical basic meaning and, in contrast to unique morphemes, can occur in several environments in connection with derivation or composition .

Fanat-ik, fanat-ism, fanat-isch, fanat-isierfanat

Unique morphemes only occur in a single combination and only have a meaning of their own in connection with a special combination partner ; so z. B. { lier- } in ver-lier-en .

In languages ​​with incorporation there are also bound nouns or verbs that are morphologically integrated into a verb; in this context they are also referred to as affixes.


Combination of the morpheme classes
free, lexical
Closet , human , love
These morphemes can appear as independent words in a sentence and have a meaning.
free, grammatically
the , in , but
These morphemes also appear as independent words in the sentence, but they have no meaning of their own. They have a grammatical function and can be assigned a meaning, but that meaning is always dependent on a lexical morpheme. When certain items of is disputed whether he no better than basic d- and affix -er should be determined.
bound, unique
Him (berry) , Lor (beer)
Heaven and Lor no longer have an independent meaning or function. Today they only appear in this one combination and can only be used meaningfully in this connection. They are also called cranberry morphs after the standard English example. The individual meaning of these morphemes was lost with the change in language (e.g. "Him-" from mhd. Hinde, "Hirschkuh").
bound, derivative
-keit , ent- , -ier (-en)
These morphemes cannot appear on their own. They are always tied to a lexical morpheme whose word class they often change. cheerful → cheerfulness changes the word class from adjective to noun .
bound, flexible
-t (allomorphs of the morpheme [ 3rd person singular present indicative ] or the morpheme combination [ 3rd person ] [ singular ] [ indicative ] [ present tense ])
-en (allomorph of the morpheme [ infinitive ])
These morphemes, too, only occur linked to lexical morphemes. Their function is the inflection of words. The allomorph -t z. B. bends the verb go (the connection then means goes ) after person (3rd), number (singular), time (present tense) and mode (indicative).

Number of morphemes in German

The following information can be found on the question of how many morphemes are made up of German words: Bühler estimates that around 34,000 words are made up of over 2000 “syllables”. It is not entirely clear what is meant by “meaning syllable”. Do you have to equate them with morph or morpheme, or are grammatical morphemes / morphemes not taken into account? An unspecified computer analysis of a dictionary by Wahrig has shown that the vocabulary it contains is based on “almost 5000 people of German origin” and a total of “almost 10,000 morphemes”. There is no indication here of how extensive the vocabulary of this dictionary is. Bünting is aware that these figures do not need to be correct, but assumes that they have roughly hit the dimension. König states - also without citing the source - that German has "approx. 4000 basic morphemes ". In his book, Bluhme deals with a basic vocabulary consisting of 3800 monosyllabic morphemes, of which 1757 (46%) are borrowings.

The problem with this information is that it only makes sense when it is related to a known size of the vocabulary. The larger the underlying vocabulary, the greater the number of morphemes, as has been shown in a similar study on morph types.

See also


General introductory linguistic literature

  • Patrick Brandt, Rolf-Albert Dietrich, Georg Schön: Linguistics (=  UTB ). 2nd Edition. Böhlau, Cologne 2006, ISBN 3-8252-8331-3 .
  • Gerhard Augst : Lexikon zur Wortbildung - Morpheminventar A – Z (3 volumes) (=  research reports of the Institute for German Language ). Gunter Narr, Tübingen 1975, ISBN 3-87808-624-5 .
  • Hadumod Bußmann : Lexicon of Linguistics . 3rd updated and expanded edition. Kröner, Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-520-45203-0 .
  • Danièle Clément: Basic linguistic knowledge . 2nd Edition. 2000.
  • Michael Dürr, Peter Schlobinski : Descriptive Linguistics . 2006, ISBN 3-525-26518-2 .
  • Hanspeter Gadler: Practical Linguistics . 3. Edition. 1998, ISBN 3-8252-1411-7 .
  • Dietrich Homberger: Subject dictionary on linguistics . 2000.
  • Piroska Kocsány: Basic Linguistics Course. A workbook for beginners . Fink, Paderborn 2010.
  • Angelika Linke, Markus Nussbaumer, Paul R. Portmann: Study book linguistics . 5th enlarged edition. Max Niemeyer, Tübingen 2004.
  • Jörg Meibauer: Introduction to German linguistics . 2nd Edition. Metzler, Stuttgart 2007, ISBN 978-3-476-02141-0 , pp. 15-69 .
  • Heidrun Pelz: Linguistics . 1996, ISBN 3-455-10331-6 .
  • Winfried Ulrich : Basic linguistic terms (=  HIRTs key words ). 5th edition. Borntraeger brothers, Berlin / Stuttgart 2002, ISBN 3-443-03111-0 .

Special introductory linguistic literature

In-depth literature

  • Susanne Bartke: Experimental studies on inflection and word formation . Niemeyer, Tübingen 1998, ISBN 3-484-30376-X .

Web links

Wiktionary: Morpheme  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. a b c Linke et al. (2004: 66-67)
  2. a b Ulrich (2002 / Monem, / Morphem)
  3. a b c Brandt et al. (2006: 4)
  4. a b Dürr / Schlobinski (2006: 79)
  5. Gadler (1998: 95-96)
  6. Example from Homberger (2000 / Morphem): Word "sprang" = meaning (spring-) + number (sg.) + Tense (past tense)
  7. Clément (2000 2 : 136) used "[PLURAL]" for the plural morpheme
  8. a b Dürr / Schlobinski (2006: 83, 293)
  9. a b c d e Meibauer (2007: 29)
  10. a b c d e Gadler (1998: 99)
  11. Hans Altmann: Examination knowledge word formation (=  UTB . No. 3458 ). 3rd, revised edition. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2011, ISBN 978-3-8252-3458-4 .
  12. Kocsány (2010: 83)
  13. fur (1996: 116)
  14. according to Gadler (1998: 99), only inflection morphemes are grammatical morphemes and the word formation morphemes form a separate, third category. Kühn (1994: 17) distinguishes on the one hand basic and basic morphemes and on the other hand word formation morphemes, inflectional and grammatical morphemes
  15. according to Meibauer (2007: 31)
  16. See Diane Massam: Noun Incorporation: Essentials and Extensions. In: Language and Linguistics Compass. Vol. 3, No. 4, 2009, pp. 1076-1096, doi : 10.1111 / j.1749-818X.2009.00140.x
  17. ^ Karl Bühler: Language theory. The representation function of the language. Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main / Berlin / Vienna 1978, ISBN 3-548-03392-X , page 34. First published in 1934.
  18. ^ Karl-Dieter Bünting: Introduction to Linguistics. 9th edition. Athenaeum, Königstein 1981, text and footnote 3, ISBN 3-7610-2011-2 , page 96.
  19. Werner König: dtv-Atlas German language. 15th, revised and updated edition. Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, Munich 2005, ISBN 3-423-03025-9 , page 115.
  20. ^ Hermann Bluhme: Etymological dictionary of the basic German vocabulary. LINCOM Europe, Munich 2005, ISBN 3-89586-805-1 .
  21. ^ Karl-Heinz Best : Quantitative studies on the German vocabulary. In: Glottometrics 14, 2007, pages 32-45, reference: page 37f.