Week 10  Module 4 Lesson 4.1.3 Rules of Word Formation: Derivational Morphemes

We learned in our last lesson about free morphemes and bound morphemes and how languages have different rules for adding prefixes and suffixes. With so many words in our language, we can't possibly know all the morphemes that are possible, although we know many rules that allow us to combine morphemes to make words. By using the morphological rules of English, we can create all kinds of new words. Linguists look at how words are formed and try to state the rules for forming new words. The study of how new words are created by combing the root with affixes is called derivative morphology.


"I couldn't afford to learn it," said the Mock Turtle with a sigh. "I only took the regular course."

"What was that?" inquired Alice.

"Reeling and Writhing, of course, to begin with," the Mock Turtle replied; "and then the different branches of Arithmetic: Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision.

"I never heard of 'Uglification,'" Alice ventured to say. "What is it?"

The Gryphon lifted up both its paws in surprise. "Never heard of uglifying!" it exclaimed. "You know what to beautify is, I supposed?

"Yes, said Alice doubtfully. "It means - to make - anything - prettier."

"Well, then," the Gryphon went on, "if you don't know what to uglify is, you are a simpleton."

(Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865), chapter 9.

When the Mock Turtle listed the branches of Arithmetic for Alice as "Ambition, Distraction, Uglification, and Derision," Alice was confused. She wasn't really a simpleton, since uglification was not a word in English until Lewis Carroll invented it. Still, most English speakers immediately know the meaning of uglification even if we've never heard it before because we know the meaning of its individual parts - the root ugly and the affixes -ify and -cation.

The Mock Turtle used his knowledge of English to add -ify to the adjective ugly and formed a verb. Many verbs in English are formed this way: purify, amplify, simplify, falsify. The suffix with nouns also forms verbs: objectify, glorify, personify. Notice that the Mock Turtle went even further: he added the suffix -cation to uglify and formed a noun, uglification, as in glorification, simplification, falsification, purification. By using the morphological rules of English, he created a new word. The rules that he used are as follows:

Adjective + ify



"to make Adjective"

Verb + (c) ation



"the process of making Adjective"


A page from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in Lewis Carroll's own hand, including his original illustration (left)


Lewis Carroll (1832 - 1989)


Derivational Morphology

Bound morphemes like -ify and -cation are called derivational morphemes. When they are added to a root, a new word with a new meaning is derived. Many derivatives change grammar category when affixes are added to create new words. The addition of -ify to pure -- purify -- means "to make pure" and the addition of -cation -- purification -- means "the process of making pure." If we invent an adjective, pouzy, to describe the effect of static electricity on hair, you will immediately understand the sentences "Walking on that carpet really pousified my hair" and "The best method of pouzification is to rub a balloon on your head." This means that we must have a list of the derivational morphemes in our mental dictionary as well as the rules that determine how they are added to a root or stem. The form that results from the addition of a derivational morpheme is called a derived word.  

Let's look at some word formation rules. Focus on how the rules help to explain how certain words are created.

Example 1: -able "able to be"

As in:

  • adaptable

  • manageable

  • acceptable

  • debatable

  • predictable

We can come up with a rule to explain how these words are formed:

Rule: Verb + -able = "able to be Verbed"

This rule is productive. Productive rules are very useful because we can use the rules freely to form lots of new words. 

So what about *typeable, *seeable, *eatable, *writeable? (notice how we mark ungrammatical words with the asterisk *)

Words that don't follow the rules can often be explained historically. Their meanings are opaque, meaning we're not able to guess their meaning from any rules. So these words that don't follow the rules have to be memorized. Instead of simply learning the rule, we need to list these words separately in our mental dictionary.

Example 2: re- "to repeat a previous action"

As in:

  • rearrange

  • rewrite

  • redo

  • replay

  • reread

  • rewrite

  • rethink

Rule: re- + Verb = "Verb-again" (another productive rule)

So what about *record, *redeem *record, *remark, *remain, *relation, *receive, *remember? These don't mean "Verb again." Again, these meanings are opaque and have to be listed separately in our mental dictionary.

Example 3: un- "not"

As in:

  • unhappy

  • unbelievable

  • unlucky

  • unacceptable

Rule: un- + Adjective = "not Adjective" (another productive rule)

So what about: *unsad, *unbrave, *unsilly, *unred? These meanings are opaque and have to be listed separately in our mental dictionary.)

What about other words that start with "un", as in:

  • undo: reverse doing

  • unearth: to dig up

  • unnerve: to fluster

None of these mean "not Adjective."

Again, we need to list these words separately in our mental dictionary.

Example 4: -er "one who"

  • player

  • painter

  • dancer

  • teacher

  • baker

Rule: Verb + -er = Noun, "one who Verbs" (another productive rule)

So what about

  • *cooker (cook)

  • *studier (student)

  • *goaler (goalee)

  • *typer (typist)

  • *pianoer (pianist)

  • *linguister (linguist)

Again, these meanings are opaque so we need to list them separately in our mental dictionary.

And what about these words that end in "er", as in:

  • prettier

  • taller

  • sillier

  • nicer (vs. player, painter, dancer, teacher, baker)

If a word doesn't follow a rule, then

  1. you need to look for a different rule or

  2. the word must be listed separately in our mental dictionaries.

For prettier, taller, sillier, nicer, we need another rule to explain these words:

Rule: Adjective + -er = "more Adjective"

Why are there two different "er"'s (one meaning "one who" and the other meaning "more")? Two different morphemes may be pronounced identically yet be two different morphemes because they have different historical origins and different meanings.

And what about these "er" words?

  • water

  • butcher

  • hammer

These are single morphemes and "er" is not their suffix. These don't follow the above rules and have to be listed separately in our dictionary.

Example 5: -ful indicates "abundance"

  • careful

  • healthful

  • doubtful

Rule: Noun + ful = Adjective, "abundance of Noun" (another productive rule)

In summary, derivational morphology combines words with affixes to create new words. Rules that explain a lot of words are called productive rules. Any words that don't follow the rules must either be explain by another rule or must be listed separated in our mental dictionaries. Knowing a few rules can help us to increase our vocabulary, whether you're a native English speaker or a student of English as a second language.



Alice on YouTube, while it lasts

Lewis Carroll's writings about the adventures of Alice, over 100 years ago, have certainly stood the test of time. Linguists love him for his play on words. But who knew that Mr. Carroll would be all over YouTube in the 21st century? 

  1. Watch the Mock Turtle tell Alice about uglification in this Alice in Wonderland (1983) clip staring veteran actor Donald O'Connor. If the jokes are too corny for you, fast forward to 1:20.

  2. The Jabberwocky -- you were introduced to this short poem in Lesson 4.1 -- seems made for YouTube. There's something about the sensible nonsense of this poem that speaks to people, as you can see from these fun, and occasionally, surreal clips.

Remember -- it's the nature of the internet for links to be removed without notice. Here's hoping these will always be around.



back to Lesson 4.1.2

On to Lesson 4.1.4

Ling 102/WI Introduction to the Study of Language, University of Hawai'i - Leeward Community College
Professor Pat Kamalani Hurley

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