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Morphophonology (also morphophonemics, morphonology) is a branch of linguistics which studies the interaction between morphological and phonological or phonetic processes. Its chief focus is the sound changes that take place in morphemes (minimal meaningful units) when they combine to form words.

Morphophonological analysis often involves an attempt to give a series of formal rules that successfully predict the regular sound changes occurring in the morphemes of a given language. Such a series of rules converts a theoretical underlying representation into a surface form that is actually heard. The units of which the underlying representations of morphemes are composed are sometimes called morphophonemes. The surface form produced by the morphophonological rules may consist of phonemes (which are then subject to ordinary phonological rules to produce speech sounds or phones), or else the morphophonological analysis may bypass the phoneme stage and produce the phones itself.


Morphophonemes and morphophonological rules

When morphemes combine, they influence each other's sound structure (whether analyzed at a phonetic or phonemic level), resulting in different variant pronunciations for the same morpheme. Morphophonology attempts to analyze these processes. A language's morphophonological structure is generally described with a series of rules which, ideally, can predict every morphophonological alternation that takes place in the language.

An example of a morphophonological alternation in English is provided by the plural morpheme, written as "-s" or "-es". Its pronunciation alternates between [s], [z], and [ z], as in cats, dogs, and horses respectively. A purely phonological analysis would likely assign to these three endings the phonemic representations /s/, /z/, / z/. On a morphophonological level, however, they may all be considered to be forms of the underlying object //z//, which is a morphophoneme. The different forms it takes are dependent on the segment at the end of the morpheme to which it attaches these dependencies are described by morphophonological rules. (The behaviour of the English past tense ending "-ed" is similar it can be pronounced [t], [d] or [ d], as in hoped, bobbed and added.)

Note that the plural suffix "-s" can also influence the form taken by the preceding morpheme, as in the case of the words leaf and knife, which end with [f] in the singular, but have [v] in the plural (leaves, knives). On a morphophonological level these morphemes may be analyzed as ending in a morphophoneme //F//, which becomes voiced when a voiced consonant (in this case the //z// of the plural ending) is attached to it. This rule may be written symbolically as: /F/ -> [ voice] / __ [ voice].

In the International Phonetic Alphabet, pipes (| |) are often used to indicate a morphophonemic rather than phonemic representation. Another common convention is double slashes (// //), as above, implying that the transcription is 'more phonemic than simply phonemic'. Other conventions sometimes seen are double pipes (|| ||) and curly brackets ({ }).

Types of morphophonological changes

Inflected and agglutinating languages may have extremely complicated systems of morphophonemics. Examples of complex morphophonological systems include:

Relation between phonology and morphophonology

Until the 1950s, many phonologists assumed that neutralizing rules generally applied before allophonic rules. Thus phonological analysis was split into two parts: a morphophonological part, where neutralizing rules were developed to derive phonemes from morphophonemes; and a purely phonological part, where phones were derived from the phonemes. Since the 1960s (in particular with the work of the generative school, such as Chomsky and Halle's The Sound Pattern of English) many linguists have moved away from making such a split, instead regarding the surface phones as being derived from the underlying morphophonemes (which may be referred to using various terminology) through a single system of (morpho)phonological rules.

The purpose of both phonemic and morphophonemic analysis is to produce simpler underlying descriptions for what appear on the surface to be complicated patterns. In purely phonemic analysis the data is just a set of words in a language, while for the purposes of morphophonemic analysis the words must be considered in grammatical paradigms to take account of the underlying morphemes. It is postulated that morphemes are recorded in the speaker's "lexicon" in an invariant (morphophonemic) form, which, in a given environment, is converted by rules into a surface form. The analyst attempts to present as completely as possible a system of underlying units (morphophonemes) and a series of rules that act on them, so as to produce surface forms consistent with the linguistic data.

Isolation forms

The isolation form of a morpheme is the form in which that morpheme appears in isolation (when not subject to the effects of any other morpheme). In the case of a bound morpheme, such as the English past tense ending "-ed", it will generally not be possible to identify an isolation form, since such a morpheme does not occur in isolation.

It is often reasonable to assume that the isolation form of a morpheme provides its underlying representation. For example, in some American English, plant is pronounced , while planting is , where the morpheme "plant-" appears in the form . Here the underlying form can be assumed to be , corresponding to the isolation form, since rules can be set up to derive the reduced form from this (while it would be difficult or impossible to set up rules that would derive the isolation form from an underlying ).

This is not always the case, however; sometimes the isolation form itself is subject to neutralization that does not apply to some other instances of the morpheme. For example, the French word petit ("small") is pronounced in isolation without the final [t] sound, although in certain derived forms (such as the feminine petite) the [t] is heard. If the isolation form were adopted as the underlying form, the information that there is a final "t" would be lost, and it would be hard to explain the appearance of the "t" in the inflected forms.

Rule ordering

Morphophonological rules are generally considered to apply in a set order. This means that the application of one rule may sometimes either prevent or enable the application of another rule, provided the rules are appropriately ordered.

If the ordering of two rules is such that the application of the first rule can have the effect of making it possible to apply the second, then the rules are said to be in feeding order. For example, if a language has an apocope rule (A) which deletes a final vowel, and a cluster reduction rule (CR) that reduces a final consonant cluster, then the rules are in feeding order if A precedes CR, since the application of A can enable application of CR (for example, a word ending /-rpa/ is not itself subject to CR, since the consonant cluster is not final, but if A is applied to it first, leaving /-rp/, then CR can apply). Here rule A is said to feed rule CR. If the rules are ordered such as to avoid possible feeding (in this case, if CR applies before A) then they are said to be in counter-feeding order.

On the other hand, if rules are ordered such that the application of the first rule can have the effect of preventing application of the second, then the rules are said to be in bleeding order. For example, if a language has an epenthesis rule (E) that inserts a /w/ before certain vowels, and a vowel deletion rule (D) that deletes one of two consecutive vowels, then the rules are in bleeding order if E precedes D, since the application of E can prevent application of D (for example, a word containing /-iu-/ would be subject to D, but if E is applied to it first, leaving /-iwu-/, then D can no longer apply). Here rule E is said to bleed rule D. If the rules are ordered such as to avoid possible bleeding (in this case, if D applies before E) then they are said to be in counter-bleeding order.

The terminology of feeding and bleeding is also applied to other linguistic rules, such as those of historical sound changes.

Morphophonology and orthography

The principle behind alphabetic writing systems is that the letters (graphemes) represent phonemes. However in many orthographies based on such systems the correspondences between graphemes and phonemes are not exact, and it is sometimes the case that certain spellings better represent a word's morphophonological structure rather than the purely phonological. An example of this is that the English plural morpheme is written -s regardless of whether it is pronounced as or ; we write cats and dogs, not dogz.

To some extent English orthography reflects the etymology of its words, and as such it is partially morphophonemic. This explains not only cats and dogs , but also science vs. unconscious , prejudice vs. prequel , chased vs. loaded , sign signature , nation vs. nationalism , and special vs. species , etc.

Most morphophonemic orthographies, however, reflect only active morphology, like cats vs. dogs, or chased vs. loaded. Turkish and German both have broadly phonemic writing systems, but while German is morphophonemic, transcribing the "underlying" phonemes, Turkish is purely phonemic, transcribing surface phonemes only (at least traditionally; this appears to be changing). For example, Turkish has two words, 'meat' and 'to do', which in isolation appear to be homonyms. However, when a vowel follows, the roots diverge: 'his meat', but 'he does'. In Turkish when a root that ends in a appears without a following vowel, the becomes (final-obstruent devoicing), and that is reflected in the spelling: et, et, eti, edir.

German has a similar relationship between and . The words for 'bath' and 'advice' are and , but the verbal forms are 'to bathe' and 'to advise'. However, they are spelled Bad, baden and Rat, raten as if the consonants didn't change at all. Indeed, a speaker may perceive that the final consonant in Bad is different from the final consonant of Rat because the inflections differ, even though they are pronounced the same. A morphophonemic orthography such as this has the advantage of maintaining the orthographic shape of the root regardless of the inflection, which aids in recognition while reading.

Table. The underlying (morpho-phonemic), phonemic, and phonetic representations of four German and Turkish words. (In the Turkish examples, represents an underlying high vowel that, as a result of Turkish vowel harmony, may surface as any one of the four phonemes .)

! ||word!!morpho-
phonemic!!phonemic!!phonetic |- |align=center rowspan=4|German||Bad|| || || |- |baden|| || || |- |Rat|| || || |- |raten|| || || |- |align=center rowspan=4|Turkish||et|| || || |- |edir|| || || |- |et|| || || |- |eti|| || || |}

Another example of a morphophonemic orthography is modern hangul, and even more so the obsolete North Korean Chos n- sinch' lchab p orthography.


  • Hayes, Bruce (2009). "Morphophonemic Analysis" Introductory Phonology, pp. 161 185. Blackwell

bn: de:Morphonologie fa: - fr:Morphophonologie id:Morfofonologi it:Morfofonologia kk: la:Morphophonologia nl:Morfofonologie nn:Morfofonologi ru: fi:Morfofonologia tt:

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