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American Sign Language (ASL) Linguistics: 
"Compounds vs Multimorphemic words (or signs)"

A student writes:

Hello Dr. Vicars,
      I have a question about a question on a quiz I got wrong. I have re-read the information again and I am sure it is a simple answer but for what ever reason it is alluding me. The question is "Bound morphemes that are added to free morpheme roots or stems form more complex multi-morphemic words are called what?" I understand that this is the process of combining an already compound sign with that of a free sign but I can't seem to figure out an example or what it is called.
[Name removed to protect the student's privacy.]

Dear _______,

Compounds, multi-morphemic words, and free morphemes all have very specific definitions and meanings.  The trick to learning to understand these concepts is to keep in mind that there is a lot of overlap and that some terms are "umbrella" terms that include the other terms. 

(For example "vehicle" is an umbrella term.  All automobiles are vehicles but not all vehicles are automobiles. We will learn the technical term for "umbrella terms" later in this class.)

In that same way it could be argued that a all "compounds" are types of multi-morphemic words.   But not all multimorphemic words are compounds.

Let's look at the definition of a compound:

"In linguistics, a compound is a lexeme (less precisely, a word) that consists of more than one stem. Compounding, composition or nominal composition is the process of word formation that creates compound lexemes. That is, in familiar terms, compounding occurs when two or more words are joined to make one longer word." Source:

So, let me state that again this way: A compound is when you combine "whole" words to create a new word.

Multi-morphemic words can be formed by adding "parts" of words to whole words.

Here's the math:

(word) + (word) = COMPOUND
Example from English: green + house = greenhouse

(morpheme)+(morpheme) = MULTI-MORPHEMIC WORD
Typical configuration: (part-of-a-word)+(whole word)

Typical configuration: (part-of-a-word)+(whole-word)
Example: RE+APPEAR = reappear

Multimorphemic words can have lots and lots of morphemes:

Example: antidisestablishmentarianism

That is: (part-of-a-word)+(part-of-a-word)+(whole-word) +(part-of-a-word) +(part-of-a-word) +(part-of-a-word)

However consider this:

Words can be:
1. monomorphemic = Have only one morpheme
2. multimorphemic: = Have two or more morphemes

ASL example: monomorphemic = RED
ASL example: multimorphemic: = RED!!!
(RED) + (process morpheme)

RED!!! = multimorphemic because we have added a morpheme via changing the way we signed it. We "inflected" the sign to add meaning to it.

Let me say that again:  We added meaning to the sign. 

That added meaning consisted of a "process morpheme."

That process morpheme consisted of the addition of a non-manual marker (facial expression) plus the changes in speed, ending location, forcefulness, and length of holds.

Those changes in the process of signing RED!!! created a "process morpheme."

So we have two morphemes happening:
1.  The form morpheme:"RED"
2.  The process morpheme: "!!!"

Or think of it like this:
1.  The form morpheme:"RED"
2.  The bound process morpheme: "very" created by inflecting the sign RED.

Side note: Consider the sign "VERY" that uses "V"-hands.  That usage would be called a "form morpheme." The inflection of RED!!! instead creates the meaning of "very" as a "process morpheme."  One of the reasons the "VERY-[form_morpheme] sign gets a bad rap and is looked down upon by (certain) teachers of ASL is because signers often misuse or overuse the form morpheme when they should instead save time and be more efficient by using the PROCESS-MORPHEME-[very].

So, technically:

RED = morpheme = it has meaning and it is as small as it is going to get while keeping that exact meaning.

RED = a word or sign =  It is a stand alone concept that is not dependent on any other  word or morpheme to have meaning.

RED = a monomorphemic word or sign = it has only one morpheme.

RED!!! = multimorphemic sign = it has two morphemes = (color) + (very)

All words have one or more morphemes. 

Some words have only one morpheme.

"CAT" has one morpheme.

"Antidisestablishmentarianism" has how many morphemes?


"Elephant has how many morphemes?

Can you make "elephant" smaller and retain the same meaning in any of the parts?


[Perhaps at one time it meant something like (ivory) + (creature) but in modern usage it has lexicalized into one morpheme.]  "Elephant" refers to the largest land mammal.  It has nothing to do with an "ant" (insect).

Don't let the number of "syllables" in a word fool you. 
Syllables are not the same as morphemes.

Elephant is a single morpheme.

In other words: The word elephant is monomorphemic.

(I came up with that on my own but later I found a source to back me up.  See:  Bauer, Laurie, 2012, "Beginning Linguistics," Palgrave Macmillan, Appendix A, page 271).

How many morphemes does the word "elephantine" have?
[Elephantine means: Having the characteristics of an elephant.]

"Elephantine" has two morphemes.

Is Elephantine a compound word?

Compound = two WORDS. 

“tine” is not a word.

So no, "elephantine" is not a compound word but it is a multimorphemic word.

Some morphemes can stand alone and thus are considered to be what?

Standalone morphemes are considered to be "words." 

[Yah, yah – linguists have more technical ways of describing standalone morphemes but let's go with "words" for now.]

Give me an example of a “monomorphemic” word:


Some morphemes cannot stand alone and must be affixed to a word and are therefore not considered to be words. They are "parts" of words that have meaning that have to occur with a word.  [ing, -ness, -ment, dis-, un-, …]

They are “bound” morphemes. They are like a needy boyfriend or girlfriend.  They just can’t be alone. 

What do we (generally) call these "bound" morphemes?






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