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Can we say that words like 'cot' and 'cat' morphologically similar? I understand morphology as different forms of a particular word, eg. swim, swam, swimming, so my definition of morphology does not cover words like 'cot' and 'cat' because they are totally different words. How should I call such words?

More example: 'hat'-'mat', 'task'-'talk', etc...

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    Well each is a root morpheme so I guess they're similar in that way, but I don't think it's very meaningful. – hippietrail Jan 29 '12 at 10:20
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    Related: What's the difference between phonetics and phonology? (There is some info there related to your question, such as the minimal pairs.) – Alenanno Jan 29 '12 at 11:08
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    -1. This question is too basic, as it indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of morphology. – JSBձոգչ Jan 29 '12 at 14:53
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    +1. It is not a brilliant question, but it pertains to linguistics, and it is not a yes-no question. It has evidence of thought, and some knowledge of morphology (i.e. understanding that swim-swam are tied morphologically). – user325 Jan 29 '12 at 19:22
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    I'm with Knitter. If we can't correct really basic mistakes, what good are we? – Leah Velleman Jan 30 '12 at 6:40
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You'd call them phonetically similar, not morphologically similar. They just have similar sounds. If two words differ in only one sound (like "cot" and "cat"), then you can call them a minimal pair (i.e. a pair of words that differ in only one phonological element).

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  • It's worth noting that "cot" and "cat" are both nouns that take regular plurals, along with the possessive morpheme. cot cots cot's cots' cat cats cat's cats' – James Grossmann Jul 1 '12 at 4:36
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It seems you don't understand the difference between Morphology and Phonology and therefore, the difference between morphemes and phonemes.

The basic definition for morpheme is basically this one: "the smallest element in a word or in a statement that carries meaning and that cannot be further split (into smaller parts)".

Take for example this word in italian :

enter image description here

The meaning is roughly "to turn nasty". But let's focus on the numbers:

  1. Prefix: The prefix in- in italian makes a verb out of a noun or an adjective;
  2. Root: The root carries the basic meaning of the word, in this case a verb; vipera in italian is a snake, the viper.
  3. Verb Ending: This tells us without ambiguity that it's a verb, belonging to the third conjugation (Italian has 3 infinite endings: -are, -ere, -ire. This one is the third one).
  4. Reflexive particle: This tells us that the action of the verb affects the subject itself. In other words, it's the subject that turns nasty, and not someone else because of the subject's action.

This is what a morpheme is. There is still a lot to say about it, but I think this is enough to give you a basic understanding. In English a morpheme is the -s for the third singular person of each verb. It tells you it's the "third person singular"; same goes with -ed which forms the past forms for the regular verbs in English. But what is a phoneme instead?

To better explain what is a phoneme, let's compare it to a phone. A phone is a sound in a given language, it carries no meaning. A phoneme instead, carries meaning, and it's useful to find minimal pairs as in your question.

Cot and cat differ for one phoneme, not one phone, because that different sound, brings different meaning. As in "lip" and "rip". You just changed one sound, from /l/ to /r/, but this was enough to change the meaning.

Take the standard pronunciation of a word and its slang pronunciation. They differ, but the word won't change its meaning.

I kept it fairly simple and standard without going into details, but I hope it helps you give a better grasp. Just remember that it doesn't end here, if you want to go further, check the links for phonemes and morphemes.

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'Orthographically similar' might be another term you can use, meaning 'spelled similarly'.

'talk' and 'task' might be similar orthographically, but are not as close phonetically as the other pairs. They differ not only on the vowel sounds, but also on the number of consonant sounds.

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