Morphology

On this page we sketch out some of the most striking aspects of the morphological processes in our featured languages. The information is by no means exhaustive. For more details, consult the Credits and Resources section.


The Morphosyntax pages contain data sets illustrating those morphological processes and provide an opportunity to do morpheme identification, as well as typological comparisons.

Morphology is the study of morphemes, the smallest units of language that carry meaning. The word morphology itself contains 2 morphemes: morph ('form') + ology ('science of'). Processes of word formation, word derivation, and inflection all fall under the scope of morphology. What is most striking about morphology from a comparative linguistic perspective is that human languages use dramatically different formal devices to solve some of the same conceptual needs. For example, some languages use prefixes to form plurals while others use suffixes. For even more convolutions of morphology, go to the morphosyntax pages.

Russian

Russian has a rich system of cases and verbal conjugation, allowing for very free word order. There are six cases in Russian: nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, prepositional, and instrumental. Adjectives agree with nouns in gender, number, and case. Verbs are divided into two aspects: perfective and imperfective. There are two basic tenses in Russian: past and non-past. Non-past conjugation of perfective verbs results in future tense, while the same conjugation of imperfective verbs results in present tense. Non-past conjugations indicate person and number. Past-tense conjugations show gender and number. In addition, imperfective verbs can form a future tense using the infinitive and a conjugated form of the perfective verb bit' (to be).

Morphemes of six types make up word forms in Russian: roots, prefixes, suffixes, inflections, postfixes, and interfixes (connective affixes of complex words). Words are a linear sequence of morphemes (in words with one root there may be from 1 to 8 of them, but three- and four-morpheme sequences are most prevalent). For mutable words articulation on the base and inflection is characteristic, nominal inflections being joined only to bases ending in a consonant. This explains why nouns and adjectives which are recent additions to Russian and end in a vowel cannot be declined.

With respect to its morphological layer, Russian is primarily inflectional and synthetic. Most of the grammatical meanings of words are expressed within the word itself by inflections or (more rarely) suffixes. One inflection usually expresses several morphological meanings. Thus, as a rule, nominal inflections combine number, case, and gender: for example, the inflection -uju in word forms of the type zelenuju (green) shows singular number, accusative case, and feminine gender. The inflection -u in word forms of the type nesu (carry) has the meaning of first person, singular, present, indicative mood, etc. Cases in which these meanings are expressed separately, by separate affixes, are rare. Thus, in forms of imperative mood the meaning of plural is expressed (with the postfix -te) separately from the meaning of person: compare nes-i (carry! sg) and nes-i-te (carry! pl); in past-tense and subjunctive forms the meaning of tense or mood is expressed separately (with the suffix -l) from gender and number (with inflections). On the other hand, the same morphological meaning (or complex of meanings) is expressed with different inflections in different words. Thus, dative case, singular is shown on nouns with the inflections -u (stolu = "table"), -e (zhene = "wife"), and -i (kosti = "bone). Homonymy of inflections is widespread in Russian: thus, the inflection -a in word forms of the type sestra (sister), umna (wise), and prishla (came) expresses feminine gender, singular; in okna (windows) and doma (houses), nominative case, plural; in okna (window) and doma (house), genitive case, singular; the inflection -i in 3rd declension nouns indicates genitive, dative, and prepositional cases in the singular. All of these phenomena - the capacity of inflections to simultaneously indicate (synthetically) several morphological meanings, synonymy, and homonymy of inflections, i.e., asymmetry of the schemes of indication and content of morphological forms - characterize Russian as an inflection language.

Translated and adapted by Josh Walker from V. V. Lopatin and I. S. Ulukhanov, "Russkii Yazik" IN Entsiklopediya Russkii Yazik, ed. Yu. N. Karaulov, Moscow: izdatel'skii dom "Drofa," 1998.

Bemba

Basic Morphology

Bemba, like most Bantu languages, has a very elaborate noun class system which involves pluralization patterns, agreement marking, and patterns of pronominal reference. There are 20 different classes in Bemba: 15 basic classes, 2 subclasses, and 3 locative classes. Each noun class is indicated by a class prefix (typically VCV-, VC-, or V-) and the co-occurring agreement markers on adjectives, numerals and verbs.

umú-ntú
person
ú-mó
one
umú-sumá
good
á-áfíká
(he/she just arrive)
'one good person has just arrived'
abá-ntú
people
-tátú
three
abá-sumá
good
-áfíká
(they) just arrive
'three good people have just arrived
ími-tí
trees
í-tátú
three
íí-sumá
good
í-léékula
(they) grow
'three good trees are growing'


The noun consists of a class prefix and a stem: umú-ntú 'person' (Class 1), abá-ntú 'people' (Class 2). Noun classes have some semantic content, and there are regular patterns of singular/plural pairing and non-count classes. Class 1/2 nouns denote human beings; Class 3/4 nouns tend to be animate, agentive, or plant-like (úmu-tí 'tree', ími-tí 'trees'); and Class 9/10 nouns represent wild animals (ín-kalamo 'lion', ín-kalamo 'lions'). Things that occur in pairs or multiples are denoted by Class 5/6 nouns (i-lúbá 'flower', amá-lúbá 'flowers'); nouns for long objects are in Class 11/10 (úlu-séngó 'horn', ?n-sengo 'horns'); and diminutives are in Class 12/13 (aká-ntú 'small thing', utú-ntú 'small things'). Class 7/8 is the general class for inanimate nouns (icí-ntú 'thing', ifí-ntú 'things') and also augmentatives; abstract nouns occur in Class 14 (ubú-ntú 'humanity'); and verbal infinitives occur in Class 15 (úku-lyá 'eating, to eat').

Some class prefixes have a derivational semantic function; they either replace the basic class prefix or occur as a secondary prefix on the noun form. The locative class prefixes function in an analogous manner.

úmu-tí
áka-tí
aká-mu-tí
icí-mu-ti
pá-ci-mu-tí
'tree', 'medicine'
'a bit of medicine'
'little tree'
'stick', 'pole', 'big tree'
'on the pole', 'on the big tree'
(Class 3)
(Class 12)
(Class 12)
(Class 7)
(Class 16)
íng'-ng'andá
kú-ng'andá
mú-ng'andá
'house'
'to/from the house', 'at home'
'in the house'
(Class 9)
(Class 17)
(Class 18)


The Bemba verb has the following basic structure:

Subject Marker + Tense/Aspect/Mood Marker + Object Marker + Verb Root + Extension + Final Vowel + Suffixes

The only obligatory morphemes are the subject marker (except in imperatives), the root, and the final vowel. The final vowel (indicated as FV) marks tense and/or mood, and sometimes co-varies with the preceding tense marker. Some past tense forms are represented by -ile or a modified root instead of a single FV. Bemba distinguishes numerous different tenses on the verb form, including: Today Past, Recent Past, Remote Past, Present, Today Future, Later Future.

n-ací-cí-sáng-a
1sg-PASTtd-it(7)-find-FV
'I found it (today)'
('it = Class 7; e.g. icípé 'basket')
n-léé-cí-sáng-a
1sg-PROG/FUTtd-it(7)-find-FV
'I am finding/looking for it'
'I will find it (today)'
n-aalíí-cí-sáng-ile
1sg-PASTrm-it(7)-find-PASTrm
'I found it (a long time ago)'