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I have the following observations and not sure if they are correct.

  • Whenever I want to learn about the morphology of a word in English, e.g. the affixes and root of the word, my search on the Internet always leads me to its etymology, on etymonline, Merrian-Webster online, etc.

  • More often than not, they don't give the morphology of the word directly, but trace back to a Latin or Greek ancestor of the word, and then give the morphology of the ancestor of the word.

  • They also don't explain any rule about evolution of the form of the word across the languages and within English.

As far as I know, etymology and morphology are different. For most users of modern English, it would suffice to learn just about the morphology of English words, and etymology seems to be an overkill. Why is it not the case then?

Are there good dictionaries or books for morphology of words in English?

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    You cannot completely and stringently separate etymology and morphology in a language with as many Latin/Greek loan words as English. With enough examples, the morphology of the original language does start to bleed over into English morphology. A word like biology was borrowed piecemeal from German, but is it just a single morphological unit? Not really. Even within English, there are enough words starting in bio- or ending in -(o)logy to argue that those are morphemes meaning ‘life’ and ‘study’ – although they’re Greek words, not English (despite Ancient Greek not having *βιολογία). Jul 24, 2023 at 11:00
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    Conversely, a word like schadenfreude was also borrowed piecemeal from German, but it’s built on German elements which don’t have (obvious) English equivalents. In German, the word is morphologically a compound of Schaden ‘harm’ + Freude ‘joy’, but those individual parts were not carried over into English. English speakers may have some idea that schadenfreude consists of two parts, but you cannot really break the word up into smaller units within English, so we can only say it’s monomorphemic. Jul 24, 2023 at 11:06
  • @JanusBahsJacquet the prosody is similar enough between German and English that you could deduce -en and -e are endings. You might be uncertain if -d- belongs to the left or righthand side, but at least you can rule out the cluster nfr as illegal. Since I disagree with your example of biology (which patently means physique, nature, not high brow "study" to a kid), it doesn't hurt that I cannot think of decisive examples of -en (etymologically it's the gol-den fleece) or -e (/uh/). You might have heard of Sigmund Freud, or a Freud-i-an slip though.
    – vectory
    Jul 26, 2023 at 17:07
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    @vectory ‘Biology’ doesn’t mean ‘physique’ to anyone at all, regardless of age; to a kid, it most likely primarily means ‘that boring class at school’. But I wasn’t talking about the word biology as such. I was talking about the many words in English beginning in bio- (biology, biosphere, biography, biofuel, biodiversity, etc.), and the many words ending in -(o)logy (biology, astrology, codicology, sinology, genealogy, oncology, etc.). A kid may not instinctively intuit the exact meaning of those two elements, but their semantic commonalities are ‘life’ and ‘study’, respectively. Jul 27, 2023 at 12:08
  • What a load of proscriptive nonsense that is. It is pretty deep philosophy of linguistics and just wrong because you commit to the etymological fallacy, ignoring basic lexicography at will, and you are shifting the goal post to define study, which is simply a room, a doublet of studio, and synonym to locus 💩 tbh. You are literally proscribing, "A kid may not ...", but you are yourself being a kid, somebody's child I reckon without loss of generality. You "may not", you said yourself, "intuit the exact meaning". At best you are establishing a sense of pedagogy.
    – vectory
    Jul 27, 2023 at 17:11

3 Answers 3

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The short answer is that English just doesn't really like using its own derivational morphology.

In, say, German, when a new term is needed, it's often created within German using a combination of German morphemes, and this has been true for centuries. In English, on the other hand, it's more common to borrow a term from French or Latin or Greek.

The result is that a lot of English words consist of multiple morphemes in French or Latin or Greek, but not in English itself. If we look at the word "inevitable", for example, it seems to have a prefix in- and a suffix -able, which both appear all over the place in English. But what is -evit-? That isn't really anything in English.

The key is that this word was not derived in English but in French, where évit- is a verb meaning "avoid". So to really break down the morphology of this word, you first need to say it comes from French, and then break it down via the rules of French instead of the rules of English. (Or you can go farther back and break it down via the rules of Latin; the dividing line between French and Latin in these things is not always clear.)

So while English has borrowed a lot of derivational morphology from other languages (like in- and -able, also -ize, -tion, etc), often these aren't used to derive words in English: they were used to derive words in other languages, that were then borrowed into English. If you strip away all these recognizable morphemes you'll be left with distinctly non-English roots, like -evit-, which were meaningful in another language but only brought into English in some derived form or other.

(On the other hand, you can also find terms that are derived within English. If you look up a word like "subcategorization", you'll presumably find it broken down as sub + category + ize + ation. That's something that happened within English, not any other language.)

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The main reason is that most people do not care about the technical structure of words, they care about the history of words. Therefore, publishers focus on popular interest.

The second reason is that I can tell you that "logic" derives from Ancient Greek logos which means "word" (not exactly true but close enough) and will not have made an incomprehensible or controversial claim, but I cannot tell you anything about the morphological structure of that word or any other word of English without presupposing a theory of word structure, and presupposing that you have some understanding of that theory. Most people absolutely hate grammar, and their eyes would glaze over if you start talking about "subcategorization frames". You could consult the works cited here to get a technical perspective on morphology which would include a heavy dose of English morphology.

But this enterprise will inevitably founder because there isn't a clear and uncontroversial criterion for asserting bimorphemicity. "Logic" may simply be a monomorphemic root, or it might be composed of a root log plus a suffix ic. Nobody has ever proposed that it is composed of lo plus gic – there is no suffix -gic, but there is a suffix ic. Etymology comes to the rescue, in that originally the Ancient Greek word was clearly quadrimorphemic (depending on what you take to be the Greek form, λογικός or λογική). (This bears on singular / plural forms in Modern English like datum / data).

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    Plus, the inflectional morphology of English is practically gone and fast deteriorating. The derivational morphology, on the other hand, is rife, variegated, and essentially random; it has to be learned individually, like German noun gender and plural. Why is it kingdom but not *princedom, knighthood but not *slavehood, slavery but not *knightery? Because that's the way it happened, not because it makes sense or follows a rule. Historical changes are not individual events but rather general tendencies over decades or centuries; they can't be predicted or explained.
    – jlawler
    Jul 25, 2023 at 14:05
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    OTOH we are gaining some inflectional morphology in verbs, like negative inflections and even tense inflections on subjects. They derive from contractions, but they are taking on affixal and even paradigmatic properties. E.g. they have → ðeɪv, they will → ðɛl, do not → doʊnt, not *dunt. Nobody would even understand you if you said "wɪlnt".
    – user6726
    Jul 25, 2023 at 14:21
  • @user6726 Willn’t is still used in parts of northern England and Scotland, and probably elsewhere as well. It’s definitely non-standard, but I would absolutely expect it to be understood by most English speakers. Jul 27, 2023 at 17:13
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English is being an analytical language in the Jaspersen Cycle. Idioms from agglutinative languages such as conjugation have limited use.

Take for example the recent -gate suffix. That water in watergate is dative-locative in origin (gate by the water) is entirely unremarkable. Henceforth the suffix is applied without regard for conjugation where there is none. Your stipulation that English morphology is attracted to etymology is thus proven wrong. It is also futile because the conjugation, if it had been present, was already on its way out before Old English was written down. But it is at least ambiguous in the case of gamer-gate because gamer might be virtually dative of game, somebody who pertains to games, since -er /-a/ is vocalic (or: since it's not genitive gamer's, one might speak of a zero-morph).

English has morpho-syntax, a few inflection endings, and some derivative morphology, but this is difficult to separate from syntax per se.

So possessive 's as the most striking example is clitic because it does not inflect with regard to is noun phrase and (I guess) because it's lower in the

And syntax is simply not something you will find in dictionaries at large, nor do teachers progress much farther than "if it sounds correct" (whereas Grammars might hold different opinions on various matters like above "zero-morphs", see What are the current views on the existence of a "zero article" in English?)


Although there is a lot to say in favor, the biggest grievance in turn is that "etymology" is often confused with historical linguistics, and you are quite correct that morphology and historical linguistics are not to be confused, by any means. It stands to reason, historical linguistics is all of linguistics from a historiographic perspective.

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