Early Sense of the Word 'Morpheme'
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History of Linguistics
In Linguist List issue 22-2346, I asked for enlightenment about the
source of an early specialized sense of the word "morpheme":
I received a number of replies. Several people suggested that this
usage should be attributed to Martinet, and indeed he does distinguish
"lex��mes" (roots) from "morph��mes" (affixes, etc.) within the broader
class of "mon��mes" (more or less Baudouin de Courtenay's
"morphemes") in his theoretical work. But since Martinet was born in
1908, it seems unlikely that his usage was familiar to Saussure, as
Wells would have to have been suggesting.
Martinet's usage is probably derived from somewhere else in the
tradition of French linguistics, and the next hint I got of the answer was
a pointer to Vendry��s, who uses the word in the specialized sense (as
opposed to the "s��mant��me" or root) in his book "Le language"
(translated by Paul Radin in 1925 as "Language"). While Vendry��s'
book was only published in 1921, he indicates that most of it was
actually written before World War I, and so this is a rather better
possibility. Vendry��s, however, was very much a student of Meillet, and
it seemed more likely that he would have derived this term from that
And so I was pointed to a source I should have been familiar with by
Hans Christian Lusch��tzky:
Mugdan, Joachim (1986). "Was ist eigentlich ein Morphem?" in
Zeitschrift f��r Phonetik, Sprachwissenschaft und
The author of this article contacted me shortly after to point it out, and
to indicate that the usage in question originates in Meillet's French
translation of Brugmann's 1904 Comparative Grammar of Indo-
European. Brugmann himself used the word "Formans" to refer to
affixes and other indicators of morphological category, and Meillet
picked up "morph��me" as the French equivalent of Baudouin de
Courtenay's coinage. In a letter to Baudouin, he acknowledged his use
of the latter's "joli mot" in this sense. My vague recollection mentioned
in my enquiry is actually of Jakobson's recounting of this story in his
article on the Kazan' School.
So the specialized sense of "morpheme" as referring to non-root
formatives is due to Meillet. The notion itself should perhaps be traced
to Brugmann, who discusses it in a 1908 article
Brugmann, Karl (1908). Formans oder Formativum? Anzeiger f��r
indogermanische Sprach- und Altertumskunde 29:69-72.
A similarly specialized use is that of Hjelmslev, who uses (the
equivalent of) "morpheme" to refer not to a formative element in a
word, but (roughly) to an inflectional category, an element of content,
Another unusual early use of the word is that of the Swedish linguist
Adolf Noreen, who calls more or less any stretch of phonological
material with an associated meaning a "morpheme": thus, all of "dog","-
s", "dogs", "big dogs", etc. are "morphemes" in this sense. Paul
Kiparsky noted that his father, the Slavicist Valentin Kiparsky, used the
word in this way.
This history, and some more, will be reviewed in a chapter I have
written for the Oxford Handbook of Inflection, being edited by Matthew
Thanks to those who responded to my question, including Joaquim
Brand��o de Carvalho, Stefano Canalis, Francisco Dubert, Sean
Jensen, Remi Jolivet, Paul Kiparsky, Hans Christian Lusch��tzky,
Joachim Mugdan, Karl Reinhardt, and James Vanden Bosch. If I have
omitted anyone's name, I apologize.
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