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Morphology and syntax


The term grammar is often used to refer to morphology (the study of word forms) and syntax (the study of sentence structure) together. Languages can be classified according to the grammatical principles which hold for them. Such classification is the subject of typology which is concerned with synchronic structure and not with genetic grouping. A language may change its type over time as has happened with English which in the Old English period was a synthetic language with many inflections and now is a rather analytic language with few grammatical endings. The following chart illustrates the main language types.



There are two basic divisions in morphology :

   (1)   lexical morphology   (word formation)
   (2)   inflectional morphology   (grammar, conjugation/declination)

•   Morphology is concerned with the study of word forms. A word is best defined in terms of internal stability (is it further divisible?) and external mobility (can it be moved to a different position in a sentence?).

•   A morpheme is the smallest unit which carries meaning. An allomorph is a non-distinctive realisation of a morpheme.

•   Morphology can further be divided into inflectional (concerned with the endings put on words) and derivational (involves the formation of new words).

•   Affixation is the process of attaching an inflection or, more generally, a bound morpheme to a word. This can occur at the beginning or end and occasionally in the middle of a word form.

•   Morphemes can be classified according to whether they are bound or free and furthermore lexical or grammatical.

•   Word formation processes can be either productive or lexicalised (non-productive). There are different types of word-formation such as compounding, zero derivation (conversion), back formation and clipping.

•   For any language the distinction between native and foreign elements in the lexicon is important. In Irish different affixes (prefixes and suffixes) are used and compounding is an important source of new words.


•   Syntax concerns the possible arrangements of words in a language. The basic unit is the sentence which minimally consists of a main clause (containing at least a subject and predicate). Nouns and verbs are the major categories and combine with various others, such as adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, etc. to form more complex sentences.

•   Linguists often distinguish between a level on which the unambiguous semantic structure of a sentence is represented, formerly referred to as deep structure, and the actual form of a sentence, previously called surface structure.

•   Sentence structure is normally displayed by means of a tree diagram which is intended to display the internal structure in a manner which is visually comprehensible. Such a diagram is not assumed to correspond to any encoding of language in the brain.

•   The term generation is used in formal linguistics to describe exhaustively the structure of sentences. Whether it also refers to the manner in which speakers actually produce sentences, from the moment of having an idea to saying a sentence, is a very different question and most linguists do not make any such claim.

•   Universal grammar represents an attempt to specify what structural elements are present in all languages, i.e. what is their common grammatical core, and to derive means for describing these adequately.

•   Language would appear to be organised modularly. Thus syntax is basically independent of phonology, for instance, though there is an interface between these two levels of language.

The purpose of analysing the internal structure of sentences is

   1)   to reveal the hierarchy in the ordering of elements
   2)   to explain how surface ambiguities come about
   3)   to demonstrate the relatedness of certain sentences

Students should be aware of how syntax is acquired by young children.

Acquisition of syntax (greatly simplified)

Input Language heard in child’s surroundings
Step 1 Abstraction of structures from actual sentences
Step 2 Internalisation of these structures as syntactic templates (unconscious knowledge)