Element Four: Grammar for Words

Morphemes480A man walks into a bar with a dog. The bartender says “No dogs!” The man says, “This is my seeing-eye dog.” “Oh, I’m sorry,” the bartender says. “Your first drink is free.” Another man walks in the bar with a Chihuahua (a small dog). The first man sees him and says “Careful! Tell the bartender that your dog is a seeing-eye dog.” The second man says, “Thanks” and goes to the bar. The bartender says “Hey, no dogs!” The second man replies “This is my seeing-eye dog.” The bartender says, “No way! Chihuahuas aren’t seeing-eye dogs.” The man says “What?!?! They gave me a Chihuahua?!?”

A key word in this story is “seeing-eye dog.” A typical seeing-eye dog is a Golden Retriever or a Labrador. They are big dogs. But a Chihuahua is a tiny little dog, and it would be rare as a seeing-eye dog. Now of course, the second man knows that he has a Chihuahua, but because he is pretending that he cannot see, he just acts like he has not seen his dog, so he acts surprised that he has a Chihuahua, as if he hasn’t seen his own seeing-eye dog.

Compound Words

For our focus on word grammar, let’s look at the compound word: seeing-eye dog. With the study of morphology (the grammar rules for words), we can see the rules that help form this special word. Pinker (2007, pg. 122) says that compounding “glues two words together to form a new one.” There are three kinds of compounds in English. (1) We make hyphenated compounds, as in mother-in-law, forty-two, or part-time. (2) We make solid compounds, such as summertime, easygoing, and storyteller. And (3) we make spaced word compounds such as cash flow, school day, and time frame.

Pinker says (pg. 126) that we can tell the difference between a compound word and a phrase by looking at stress. With compound words, we tend to stress the first syllable, so a room where a photographer works is a dárkroom. But a room that is dark is a dark róom. A teacher may write on a whíteboard. But a board that is painted white is a white bóard. These are phonological rules for compound words, but we can also see compound rules that come out of our mental dictionary.

Irregular Plurals and Compound Words

Linguists Alegre and Gordon (1996) have shown how we make compound words by using a natural logic of word structure. There is a special rule for how English speakers make compound words from irregular plurals. Even children seem to know that we can form compounds from irregular plurals, but not regular plurals. For example, my dog Phoebe is a Jack Russell Terrier, a breed that is known for being a mice-killer. We make this compound word from the irregular plural “mice.” Moreover, my dog does not like cats. Now she is not a cat-killer, but she is probably a cat-hater. Notice that we cannot say cats-killer, or cats-hater. This shows the rule: we form compounds from irregular plurals, not regular plurals. 

Why is this? We cannot make irregular plurals “mice and men” by a rule. We must memorize them just as they are — as roots (or listemes). If we followed a rule, we would say “There are two mans* in this room.” Instead, we just have to memorize the irregular: men. But we do make regular plurals by a rule. They are complex words: cat + s = cats. For compounding, we put the roots “mice” and “killer” together, and we get mice-killer, and we put the roots “cat” and “killer” together, and we get cat-killer. We combine roots first, and once the roots are combined, it’s too late to add the “s” on cats. Children seem to understand this compounding rule without studying it. It seems to be a part of their natural born grammar or the natural logic of how we compound words.

Basic Morphology

Now the mice-killer example is interesting, but it is an advanced aspect of morphology. With basic morphology, we look at morphemes. Morphemes are the little pieces of words, the smallest meaningful bits of words. They are small, but they give us big power. For example, with the word teach, we can say: teaches, (taught, irregular), teaching, teachings, teacher, teachers, teacherly, teachable, teachability, teachableness. That’s a lot of words just from “teach!” With this example, we see two basic kinds of morphemes: (1) a free morpheme: teach. It is an independent word. And we see (2) bound morphemes. These are the dependent word parts, such as -s, -er, -ly, -able, and -ness.

Looking at bound morphemes, we can see two more categories. (A) inflectional morphemes that change the grammatical role of words in sentences. For example, “I teach.” But, “She teaches.” And we say, “one teacher” but “one hundred teachers.” The -s here inflects for person and number and so changes the grammatical role of teach and teacher in these sentences. But we also have (B) derivational morphemes, which make new words from other words. Thus, we use derivational morphemes with “teach” to make the new words teacher, teachable, and teacherly. All this is a simple introduction to morphology. But the basic idea is that morphology is grammar for words. And if you know word grammar, when you learn a new word, you can do a lot of things with it!

*It should be “two men.”

Alegre, M. A., & Gordon, P. (1996). Red rats eater exposes recursion in children’s word formation. Cognition, 60(1), 65–82.

Pinker, S. (2007). The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. Harper Perennial Modern Classics.