Tuesday, December 19, 2017


In morphosyntax, a morpheme is the smallest part of a language that has any meaning. Normally, one would think that would be a word, however, some words are made out of multiple morphemes, which means a morpheme can be smaller than a single word.

One example in English is the suffix "-ian" in the words Italian, Canadian, Martian, and so on. The words that share this "-ian" morpheme share its meaning, however, "-ian" alone doesn't mean anything: it isn't a word by itself, it's a morpheme.

Note: all words are composed of morphemes. Even "cat" contains one morpheme: "cat." So there are morphemes that can be used as words, also called "free morphemes," and morphemes that are always used as affixes, also called "bound morphemes."

Examples of morphemes in Japanese

In Japanese

In Japanese, the idea of morphemes are closely related to the kanji. This is because kanji have meanings, they represent an idea, and compose words made out of one or more kanji.

For example: jin means "-ian" when referring to a person born somewhere: Itaria-jin イタリア人, an "Italian" person. However, it doesn't mean something is made in Italia, like an "Italian" car, which would be Itaria-sei イタリア製 instead.

Usually, the last morpheme in a word is a noun-like morpheme, while the first morphemes are adjectives for that noun morpheme. Knowing this can help you guess the meaning of a word by its kanji, since the kanji often represent the morphemes.
  • {otoko no} ko

    A child [who] {is a man.}
    A {male} child.
    A boy.
  • dan-shi
    (almost same meaning.)

In some cases, a kanji represents whole a word instead of just a partial idea, and they're said to be the kanji for that word: danshi 男子 is spelled with the kanji for "man," otoko 男, and "child," ko 子.

Since some words are made out of multiple morphemes, sometimes the single kanji that spells them represents multiple morphemes too. For example, the following compound adjectives:
  • minikui
  • mi-nikui
    Hard to see.
  • miru
    To see.
  • nikui
  • aoguroi
    Bluish black.
  • aoi
  • kuroi

There are also cases where a single morpheme is written with multiple kanji, like in jukujikun.

Like other languages, suffixes, prefixes, etc. in Japanese are also considered to be morphemes, even though a lot of those would be written without kanji, but with hiragana.

In particular, Japanese conjugation is mostly based on agglutinating verb suffixes called jodoushi 助動詞, which are spelled with hiragana.
  • tabe-ru
    To eat [something].
    • ru - unmarked predicative form suffix.
  • tabe-sase-ru
    To make [someone] eat [something].
    • sase-ru - causative suffix.
  • tabe-sase-rare-ru
    To be made eat [something] by [someone].
    • rare-ru - passive suffix.
  • tabe-sase-rare-ta-i
    To want to be made eat [something] by [someone].
    • ta-i - desiderative suffix.
    • i - copulative suffix.
  • tabe-sase-rare-ta-ku-na-i
    Doesn't want to be made eat [something] by [someone].
    • ku - adverbial copulative suffix.
    • na-i - negative form of the auxiliary verb aru ある.
  • tabe-sase-rare-ta-ku-na-kat-ta
    Didn't want to be made eat [something] by [someone].
    • ka' かっ - a ren'youkei 連用形 form of i-adjectives.
    • ta - past suffix.


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