A morpheme is the smallest unit of a word that can carry meaning.
You might think that’s the same as a word, but there are even smaller bits that you know the meaning of, maybe without realizing it.
Think about the following words: unlock, untie, unwrap, unwind, unwind, unstick. What does that little piece un- mean? It’s hard to put into words, but it’s something along the lines of “reverse an action in order to change something’s state of being.”
Many words can be broken into smaller pieces that mean something when they are by themselves. Sweatshirt can be split into two pieces: sweat and shirt. These two pieces are words themselves, and combine to make sweatshirt, a compound word. In this case, sweat and shirt are two morphemes because neither of them can be broken into even smaller pieces
Many morphemes aren’t a word by themselves, however. For example, the word in the word cats, there are two units: cat and –s. Cat means an adorable feline, usually a domestic pet, and –s means there are more than one. These two morphemes combine to form the word cats, but the -s can’t stand alone.
While the word cats has two morphemes, there are lots of words that have many syllables but are only one morpheme.
One example of a word that is one morpheme but has many syllables is the word anemone. It has four syllables, but cannot be broken into any smaller parts that carry any sort of related meaning (e.g. ‘an’ in this word doesn’t mean the same thing as the regular word ‘an’). Anemone is one morpheme.
An example of a word with one syllable that is one morpheme is the word strength. It is a whopping seven letters long, but cannot be broken into smaller pieces, and so it is just one morpheme.
Words can also be built from many morphemes. Unconstitutionally has five: un+constitute+tion+al+ly!
A morpheme can be just one word or a part of a word. A morpheme can be less than one syllable or many syllables long. No matter its length, a morpheme is the smallest unit of a word that can carry meaning or modify the meaning of a word it is attached to.
Aahnix is a Project Coordinator in the Bergelson lab at Duke University