My 16 year old is reading linguistics books from public library. Please simplify the distinction between Morph vs. Morpheme?

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Lieber doesn't even define Morph. Rochelle Lieber, Introducing Morphology 2010 1st ed, p 202. Our library doesn't have the latest 3rd edn.

We tried library's two other books on morphology, but we're still wildered.

morph The smallest grammatically significant part of a word. Generally used to refer to the form itself rather than to a set of forms with meaning and function.

morpheme A word or a meaningful piece of a word that cannot be divided into smaller meaningful parts. Examples include school, read, or the re- and -ing of rereading.

Kirsten Fudeman, What is Morphology? 2011 2nd ed. p 266.

morph: a concrete primitive element of morphological analysis.

morpheme: the smallest meaningful part of a linguistic expression that can be identified by segmentation; a frequently occurring subtype of morphological pattern (Section 1.1).

Martin Haspelmath, Understanding Morphology 2010 2nd ed. pp 334-5. Library hasn't bought 2023 3 ed.

Quora's too abstruse for us.

The terms morph, morpheme, allomorph are constructed by analogy to phone, phoneme, allophone. A phone is a speech sound; a phoneme is a group of allophones (which are phones) that constitute a single sound in a particular language variety. Thus the phoneme /t/ in English has several allophones, including aspirated, unaspirated, and unreleased versions; in other languages, these phones may go unused, or represent two or even three different phonemes.

Similarly, a morph is a root or affix or other component part of a word (including in some cases a whole word); a morpheme is a group of allomorphs (which are morphs) that represent a single meaning in a particular language variety. Thus the indefinite-article morpheme in English has two allomorphs, a and an, and the plural morpheme hs [typo for has] many allomorphs: s, which can be represented by any of three phonemic shapes, and various irregular allomorphs including change-of-vowel (foot/feet) and zero (sheep).

Associate Prof. Richard DeArmond1's chart addles us! Why's it comparing both the "s, en" morphs? Shouldn't these two morphs be listed separately? They clearly communicate different morphemes! For one, solely "s" is a possessive morpheme, not "en"!

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1B.A., University of Washington, 1960. M.A., University of Chicago, 1964. Ph.D., University of Chicago, 1968.

  • That chart is quite unclear, yes. I think the first row is meant to be a table header, rather than a data row, so it’s saying that ‘morphs’ is what the table (or perhaps the first column, though that seems odd) is about, and ‘s, en’ is what the three last columns are about. Nov 1, 2021 at 8:52
  • 2
    "Morph" is a loose and sloppy term for morpheme, without implying any close analysis. It's just a way of referring to an undifferentiated chunk of word-stuff.
    – jlawler
    Nov 1, 2021 at 21:01

3 Answers 3


These are not carefully-distinguished technical terms, instead, an author will tend to use the words to refer to X from different perspectives (where X is something like "morpheme"). We generally point to things like "the past tense", "the plural" or "the accusative plural" as morphemes. "They" have a regular relation to aspects of syntax and semantics. In English, the plural is not make up of smaller bits nor is the plural, nor is the accusative plural in typical Indo-European languages that have an accusative plural. But the actual realization of "the plural" in English is many different forms. It might be -s, -z, -ɨz, -(r)en, a vowel change, and so on. The realizational variants of the plural are often called "allomorphs".

We switch to phonology for a second, since that is the basis for these allo- and -eme terms. In phonological analysis, we distinguish a more abstract kind of sound like conventional "p" or "t" in English from how it is physically realized in a given context, e.g. [tʰ, t̚, t, ɾ, ʔ] and call these allophones. Then, they are allophones of something more abstract, or phonemes. This use has then been applied to word-structure where an allomorph is a concrete realization (in "morphophonemes") and morpheme is the abstract thing that unifies all of those realizations.

In phonology, there isn't a sharp distinction between phone and allophone, but "allophone" is generally used to imply that you have carried out the required distributional analysis on the observed data, and the observed data is made up of "phones" (carefully-noted phonetic symbols). Since linguists generally don't deal in transcriptions of unknown languages (where you have no idea what the phonemic analysis should be), linguists tend to only deal in phonemes and allophones, and we don't usually talk about phones. Morpheme and allomorph are commonly used terms in morphological analysis, but "morph" is kind of the odd term out, in terms of developing standard usage.

De Armond constructs a distinction that doesn't correspond to actual usage by linguists at large, but it can be interpreted. In his view, a "morph" is a phonological object with a lexical and grammatical unity. An "allomorph" is a morph with a "unique set of features" (grammatical or lexical). What in the world could the difference be? This implies that there can be a difference between "lexical and grammatical unity" and "unique lexical and grammatical features". The standard view is that the features are the unity of linguistic constructs. But, as I suggested above, "phone" is more raw observation and "allophone" is the result of analysis. Features are never "raw observations", they are always the product of analysis, so an allomorph would be the product of analyzing morphs. And then morphemes are the further product of analyzing allomorphs.

  • thanks. to be honest, your answer is too abstruse and we don't understand it. we'll try to re read this later.
    – user5306
    Nov 4, 2021 at 8:14
  • One talks about 'morphemes' when identifying parts of the word that add to its meaning by expressing one or more categories like number, person or tense. These are the smallest meaningful building blocks the word can be broken down into, and which, when attached to other words (technically stems, which in turn are also made up of morphemes) still add the same meaning - think the English plural marker -s or the past marker -ed.

  • Morphemes are abstract psychological entities because the same morpheme can be pronounced differently based on its environment and still be understood by the listener as expressing the same meaning: the plural morpheme -s is normally a voiced /z/ as in placez, dogz, tenz, but is a voiceless /s/ if preceeded by certain consonants, as in cats, chefs; it seems to be ambiguous as to voicing in animalz~s, and furthermore has three vocalic variants: rosɨz and hatchɪz (at least in AE) in addition to thesiːz. All of these distinct pronunciations nevertheless add the same meaning of plurality and are called 'allomorphs' - conditioned variants of a single morpheme.

  • A 'morph' is simply a non-committal way to say 'allomorph.' Usually this is because the 'allo-' in 'allophone' means "different" and necessarily implies there being more than one conditioned variant expressing the same morpheme. By withholding the prefix the author avoids asserting this - this is similar to using 'lect' to avoid the terms 'dialect', 'idiolect' and 'sociolect'.

    • It can also happen because the writer hasn't decided which morpheme the morph should be grouped into, that is, which categories it exclusively represents - this is the case in your chart. How one breaks down a word into morphemes is to an extent arbitrary, and a morpheme that for example is said to express 'past plural' can conceivably be further broken down into two morphs corresponding to the individual categories 'past' and 'plural' if the same morph for 'plural' can be identified in the 'present plural' morpheme. As a result, the meaning of 'morph' becomes ambiguous between "conditioned variant of a morpheme" and "a further sub-division of a morpheme". But since the whole term is non-committal on purpose, this doesn't bother anybody, and the meaning can be congested down to "the smallest morphological building-block the writer wants to distinguish".
  • The chart you link doesn't combine the morphs -s and -en, it simply lists them without regard to which categories they express - at this point this is still undecided. The decision is only made when assigning them to separate morphemes. The resulting combinations are grouped together in the 'allomorphs' line, while the corresponding psychological entity (morpheme) is specified below it through the categories being expressed.


I work on morphology and I don't use the term much, but if I did it would be as a vague term for something that I thought was probably an allomorph of a morpheme but that I hadn't analysed yet. For example, I suppose I could say that "-en" in "written" and "-ed" in "walked" were different morphs, without committing myself to whether they are distinct morphemes or allomorphs of a single morpheme. Similar to what Unbrutal_Russian wrote.

I notice that the word "morph" does not appear in the index of the 1998 Blackwell Handbook of Morphology (edited by Spencer and Zwicky).

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