LINGUIST List 9.755

Thu May 21 1998

Sum: The Term "Morph"

Editor for this issue: Martin Jacobsen <>


  1. Larry Trask, Sum: the term `morph'

Message 1: Sum: the term `morph'

Date: Wed, 20 May 1998 17:33:58 +0100 (BST)
From: Larry Trask <>
Subject: Sum: the term `morph'

A week ago I asked for a term to label a stretch of phonological
material, within a word-form, whose morphological analysis is either
unknown or simply not at issue. That is, we have a sequence of
phonemes within a word-form, and either we don't know what the
morphological analysis is, we are debating this, we are temporarily
keeping it a secret, or we just don't care: we merely want a label to
denote that stretch, without committing ourselves to anything. I
myself proposed the term `morph', which is the one I have always used.

Now, in American structuralist usage, especially as codified by
Charles Hockett in his famous 1947 paper in Language, a `morph' is, in
principle, a stretch of phonological material representing a *single*
morpheme in a given case. However, in that same paper, Hockett
undercuts his own definition by introducing the notion of an `empty
morph' -- a morph representing no morpheme at all -- and a
`portmanteau morph' -- a single morph representing two or more
morphemes in such a way that segmentation is impossible. And he
therefore goes on to declare flatly that the number of morphs in a
word-form need not be equal to the number of morphemes: it may be
larger or smaller. This outcome is quite inconsistent with his
original definition, and consistent with the view I espouse: a `morph'
is a stretch of phonological material which need not represent a
single morpheme.

I received responses from 26 people, most of them privately. Only
three of them agreed that my use of the term was normal. Oddly, one
of these suggested that this use of `morph' might be peculiarly
European, while another suggested it might be peculiarly American. (I
myself am an American working in Europe, for what that's worth.) One
of them also cited a published use of the term in more or less my
intended sense. Brown and Miller (1991), Syntax (2nd ed), p. 165,
says this: "morphs are substantial units (morphs are segments of word
forms)." The authors go on on the next page to declare that `ate' and
`mice' are single morphs. I will be particularly interested in
hearing about any other published uses of `morph' in my more general

One other respondent was unfamiliar with this use of `morph' but
endorsed it as superior to any other term he knew of. Nobody else
appeared to be familiar with my usage; several took mild exception to
it; and one took strong exception to it, on the ground that it was
seriously out of line with the more familiar sense of the term.

Many people proposed alternative terms. A few of these are apparently
regularly used by the people suggesting them, but most appear to be
new proposals. Here are the labels suggested, with the omission of a
couple of facetious ones:

bound form
complex affix
cumulative morph
morpheme string
morphemic bundle
morphemic cluster
morph complex
morph sequence
opaque element
piece of morphological material
polymorphic inflection
prepositional inflection
unanalyzed string

(In addition, I find on re-reading Hockett that he proposes a term
which seems very close to what I have in mind: `tentative
portmanteau'. This cumbersome term seems to have sunk without trace.)

Many of these I am afraid I find unacceptable. The chief problem is
that quite a few of these suggestions commit the user to some view:
that the sequence in question represents more than one morpheme, that
the sequence is unanalyzable, that the sequence is inflectional in
nature, that the sequence comes at the end of the word-form, or
whatever. But I don't want to commit myself to *anything*: I just
want a term that sounds better than `thingy'.

Some of the other terms are more attractive, though a few are too long
and cumbersome to be in regular use.

I must say that I really do find it odd that we seem to have no agreed
name for this kind of thing, given that we all surely have frequent
occasion to talk about these objects. Just to cite a humdrum example,
we all teach Linguistics 101, present the word `twilight', explain
that it consists of something plus `light', and then ask,
rhetorically, "What is this X here?" I mean *before* we give the
"official" answer.

It further appears that there exists a rather mysterious subset of
linguists, forming no natural class that I can detect, who
unhesitatingly use `morph' in exactly this sense, even though most of
our colleagues do not. Why is this happening?

Several respondents raised tangential issues which I won't pursue
here; I'll leave those colleagues to pursue those issues on the list,
if they want to.

My thanks to Rich Alderson, Pier Berto Bertinetto, Wayles Brown,
Richard Coates, Tom Cravens, Jim Fidelholtz, Andreas Gather, David
Gil, Philip Grew, Kleanthes Grohmann, Rolf Grosserhode, Earl Herrick,
George Huttar, Shlomo Izre'el, Rich Janda, John Koontz, Joko Kusmanto,
Waruno Mahdi, Sam Martin, Rick Mc Callister, Rebecca Larche Moreton,
Rob Pensalfini, Petr Roesel, Keiko Unedaya, Benji Wald, and Max

Larry Trask
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH
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