This two-part article introduces the study of linguistics and its connections to the teaching of English as a second language.

The grammatical description of a language is conveniently divided into two complementary sections: morphology and syntax. The relationship between them, as generally stated, is as follows: Morphology accounts for the internal structure of words, and syntax describes how words are combined to form phrases, clauses and sentences.

For example, the word "imperfections" is composed of four morphemes: im + perfect + ion + s. A morpheme is "the minimal linguistic sign, a grammatical unit in which there is an arbitrary union of a sound and a meaning and which can not be further analyzed," as Fromkin and Rodman point out.

The affixes carry elements of meaning; "un" carries a negative meaning, and "ness" expresses a state or quality. As ESL teachers, we can use morphology to help students build new words by using words they already know. For example, from "care" they can learn careful and careless; from "fear" they can learn fearful and fearless.

The internal structure of words is governed by rules. Uneaten, undone and undamaged are meaningful words while eatenun, doneun and damagedun are not. Just as knowledge of a language implies knowledge of the phonology and syntax, it also implies knowledge of the morphology.

Derivational morphology studies the construction of new words. For example, the word "telegraph" is formed by combining two Greek elements, and it evolved into telegrapher, telegraphy, telegraphic and telegraphist, as noted by W. Nelson Francis.

There are four normal ways to form derivational words in English:

  • Prefixation: obey becomes disobey, done becomes undone.
  • Suffixation: place a morpheme after the base of the word: kindness.
  • Conversion: Change the part of speech without changing the word: carpet (n.) becomes carpet (v.), as in "I need to carpet my living room."
  • Compounding: two base forms are added together: black + bird = blackbird.

Other less usual ways include acronyms like NATO, VIP, NYPD and blends like brunch, derived from breakfast andlunch. Also words can be blended: fog + smoke = smog, for example.

Inflectional morphology studies the way words vary or inflect as demanded by the grammar as in book/books or walk/walked. Boy/boys are two forms of the same word. The difference is the plural marker.

Bound and free

Some morphemes like man, wish and gentle have meaning by themselves and can stand alone. Others like -ness, -s, and re- have to be connected to words. The ones that stand alone are free morphemes, and the connected ones are bound morphemes.

Inflectional morphemes

These do not change meaning or part of speech — big/bigger, for example and they indicate syntactic or semantic relationships -s in a verb such as walks indicates present tense and agreement with a third-person singular subject. Plural -s occurs with most nouns and is found at the margins of words (babysitters not babyssitters).

These also include the possessive 's added to nouns, -ing, -ed, -enadded to verbs to show tense, and -er and -est added to adjectives to show comparison.

Derivational morphemes

These are often part of a "word form" exercise for ESL learners:

Sample exercise

The number of the exercise corresponds to the chart above. Use the correct part of speech:

1. He was surprised at the time.

The party was a _____________.

They did ____________ well.

2. "Go away!" he said _____________.

_________ is bad for your health.

Don't get ____________.

Poor planning ______________ me.

3. Is eight hours enough ______________?

They are always ____________ in class.

I never ____________ before 12.

"I forgot my lab book," he said _____________.

And so on.

Generally, there is one question for each word in the chart; however, less common or archaic forms may be left out.

Most morphemes have semantic content. They provide some kind of independent meaning (content morphemes like nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs), and others are grammatical (function morphemes like prepositions, pronouns, articles, conjunctions).

ESL applications

Sometimes students overgeneralize. Here are some examples of ESL students giving unusual definitions:

Word student definition

  • Longevity as very tall
  • Fortuitous as well protected
  • Bibliography as holy geography
  • Gullible as having to do with sea birds

Borrowed words

Although English owes its greatest lexical debt to Greek and Latin, it has borrowed generously from other languages as well: Scandinavian, Hindi, Yiddish, various Eastern European languages and, of course, North American native languages. Examples include boutique from French and bagel from Yiddish.

The long colonial rule of the British in India not only developed the British palate for tea, but it also resulted in the import of many words from Hindi and the other languages of India, such as:

  • cummerbund
  • punch
  • shampoo
  • thug
  • pajamas

Arabic has contributed several words to English:

  • algebra
  • alcohol
  • assassin
  • mosque
  • jihad
  • hummus

The Slavic nations (Russia, Czech Republic, Poland, etc.) have also made a contribution through the millions of immigrants to the English-speaking nations from that part of Europe. Here are a few:

  • commissar (Russian for "commissioner" — from the Soviet era)
  • polka (Polish word for "pole")
  • robot (From Karel Capek's play "R.U.R.," based on the Slavic word robota "work" or "slave labor."

English has also borrowed from Italian, especially musical and culinary terms. The English-speaking peoples have a special place on their menus for Italian food, so much so that words like spaghetti and macaroni seem like native words now. The same is true of piano, cello, and maestro.

Content words and function words

Content words carry meaning, for example: tree, go, man, walk, slow, quickly. They include nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs. Function words include words like the, this, my, every, several, auxiliaries (is as in is written, has might), prepositions, intensifiers, (rather, very, so as in so cold that), and particles used in two-word verbs (e.g., look up the word).

In the second part of this article, we will look at some of the systems English uses for communication and analyze the structure of English sentences.