Linguistics: Morphology

Morphology, the study of the internal structure of words, reveals many properties that make sign languages unique.

Words or signs can be decomposed into one or more basic elements. Such elements are called morphemes. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit within a sign. In English, the word student consists of one morpheme, but the word teacher consists of two morphemes: ‘teach’ and ‘-er’. The American Sign Language (ASL) signs in (1a) consist of one morpheme, while those in (1b) contain two morphemes.

(1) a. drive ‘drive’

teach ‘teach’

lecture ‘lecture’

b. drive+er ‘driver’

teach+er ‘teacher’

lecture+er ‘lecturer’

As we see in (1a), a morpheme encodes a consistent correspondence between form and meaning. For example, drive means an activity (i.e., ‘drive’). There is no way to divide the sign into two smaller units ...

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