I suspect my professor is in error - calling all linguists

I’m taking an introductory linguistics class this semester, and I’m trying really hard to remind myself that just because I read linguistics-related threads on the SDMB doesn’t mean that I know everything about the topic. That said, I’m starting to think that the professor is giving the class incorrect information, or is at least conveying information poorly. Reading over a study guide she wrote for an upcoming test is what prompted me to start this thread.

Her instructions on how to break down a word into its constituent morphemes is what raised my eyebrow. Essentially, she has told us to ignore etymology and to break down words based on “today’s roots,” whatever that means. For instance, she considers identify a free lexical root and therefore, apparently, entirely unrelated to words like identity because ident is not a word (or to quote her study guide, “because ident- does not have a meaning in and of itself in English today”). I, on the other hand, argue that ident is a bound lexical root, and that identity and identify are derivative stems. I don’t see how one can examine a word’s morphology without giving any consideration to its etymology. So, what’s the straight dope?

As an aside, if I am in fact correct here, what recourse do I have?

She is not very cunning.

Etymologically speaking, “identity” and “identify” both come through the French identit from Latin idem (“the same”). “ident” by itself, as far as I can tell, has never been a word. If anythining it would be “identi-” that was the root. I think you could make a case for it, at least.

The OED 2nd Edition Online gives the etymology of identity as “ad. F. identité (Oresme, 14th c.), ad. late L. identitas (Martianus Capella, c425), peculiarly formed from ident(i)-, for L. idem ‘same’ + -tas, -tatem,” so I wasn’t too off the mark from ident(i)- when I said ident. As for it being a word, my claim was that it was a bound lexical root; that is, as an arrangement of sounds/characters, it has meaning, but would not appear on its own.

A similar question came up in class regarding spect. The professor claims that since spect has no meaning on its own in modern English (though I doubt she checked that, since it was in use in the late 16th century as a verb), it is therefore okay to treat words like inspect, suspect, and respect, which all appear to derive from the same Latin root (specere), as roots themselves. I have to assume that she was hired based on merit, so I think it’s likely that she’s trying to dumb things down for the class. Either way, she seems to be playing it by ear, and that doesn’t sit well with me.

I am not a linguist, but I think that I can sort of see what she is driving at. If you used the Latin specere as the root, you might be mislead into thinking that the English expect was the opposite of inspect, as a crude example. By treating these as English “roots” you would be led to more accurate variants, e.g. uninspected as the opposite of expected.

But, with that said, I really don’t see the point or value of any discussion of linguistics that ignores its roots in Latin, Greek, French, German and Norse. My dictionary defines linguistics as “the study of human speech, including the units, nature, structure, and modification of language”, and to say that the foreign roots of our words don’t count seems to run counter to any serious exploration of linguistics.

Heck, English is a thriving and vibrant language just because it has no bounds; it is constantly adopting and absorbing words and phrases from other languages because they express what we want to mean without having to conjure up a new English word. Lingerie is so much more succinct than “women’s intimate apparel.”


You would be misled instead of mislead, and uninspected would be the opposite of inspected, not expected


I don’t even see what she’s driving at. That seems like a very strange thing to say - “identity” and “identify” have similar sounds and similar meanings. You’re expected to just ignore that and pretend it’s a coincidence? That seems completely bizarre to me.

In a lot of languages, there’s a morpheme that’s always bound - look at the verb roots in Romance languages, for instance. Would you also be expected to pretend that the similar forms of “hablo, hablas, habla, hable, hablé” etc. are also just some crazy coincidence since “habl-” isn’t a word in its own right?

I just don’t understand what she could mean when she says this. I’d even suspect that new words are formed nowadays in English from backformations involving tacking suffixes onto Latin roots present in other English words, though I can’t think of any examples at the moment. Don’t take anything I say too seriously, though. I’m not an expert in these matters.

Ok, upon rereading, that does make some more sense, actually.

The idea is that in English, Latin roots and affixes aren’t usually productive in English. You can’t take “inspect”, “expect”, and “respect” and then decide to form similar words off of other roots. You can’t, then, say that “instruct” is a word, so “extruct” and “restruct” ought to work as well.

It’s pretty much true, I guess - these Latin words, even if their roots are obvious, are still basically indivisible units in English (although I still think I’ve seen pseudo-Latinate words formed through backformation.) That makes sense, actually. What she’s saying is that in this particular task of breaking words down into pieces, the Latin roots and affixes aren’t relevant because they can’t be freely recombined in English.

She could have picked a better way to explain it, though, then by making an arbitrary claim that a root is only valid if it exists as a free morpheme. But I see what she’s getting at. There’s not really any significance to English speakers of the Latin roots of words - otherwise, “instruct” and “construct” would have to share some sort of meaning, but any shared meaning in English that you can come up with is vague and tenuous at best.

Actually, the typo raises an interesting point. According to her etymology-free theory, as presented at second hand here, “parentheses,” “syntheses” and “antitheses” are plurals only because “thesis” happens to be a contemporary English word, with the plural “theses.” Clearly, this does not work in all cases – an important issue in a language as irregular as English. Its significance becomes more evident in the light of the quote from her study guide:

I can appreciate the argument that modern English may best be viewed as having its own set of lexical roots, without slavish regard to their foregn or ancient origins, but the insistence that those roots must themselves be modern English words seems unsupportable. It demands, in effect, that any word that ever serves as a root must survive intact in the language as long as any of its offspring do. Further, I’d say that it creates an artifical reliance on the distinction between modern English (worse, “contemporary” English) and older “versions” – as if they were discrete models instead of arbitrary and temporally overlapping stages in a continuous organic process.

Actually, I’d argue that the reliance on “today’s English” relies on an implicit but nonexistent meaning for that term. The compilers of modern dictionaries, for example, openly admit that characterizing a word as “archaic” or “obsolete” is an arbitrary decision. It’s not like a computer program that reaches a defined public “end of life” when its author discontinues support. Many words in reasonably common use 50-100 years ago are obsolete today, and would be confusing if used in contemporary speech, even to those who grew up using them. Looking back to the 1930s (when my still-living father was growing up), dough and moolah are still recognizable terms for money, but rhino and spondulicks are not.

“Today’s English” does not exist. It’s merely a loose description of a general process. English isn’t even --and never has been-- a single unitary object. While regions of England no longer speak almost mutually incomprehensible dialects, as in recent centuries, British, Indian and American English, as spoken in their native regions, still have very significant divergences, which could impact our determination of “roots”. If we combine them, we might conclude that a word which persists or evolves in American English has a “root” that only survives in Indian English (India is officially an English speaking nation, with a linguistically recognized dialect), though no causal link exists.

In the end, it’s an interesting academic concept, but hardly a useful tool at the lower undergraduate levels.

I think your teacher is teaching the class one pragmatic form of compound morphology that is accepted among most linguists. Whether or not this is appropriate very much depends on the level at which you are following this class. I would certainly consider it appropriate for instance if my class was full of English students with very limited background in other languages than English (for instance 70% of all Brits only speak English, making them one of the least multi-lingual peoples in the Western world :wink: ). Since you indicated already this is introductory linguistics, I would say that it is definitely appropriate.

My experience however is that if you (modestly) ask her about it, she will be flattered by your interest. Certainly all teachers I’ve had so far have been, whenever I asked something like that.

( Ok, except one or two in primary school, and one strongly religious philosophy teacher at university ).

Back in college, I was a linguistics minor for a while…and this was exactly the sorts of crap that drove me nuts…

Regardless, from what I remember of that bygone time, your teacher is describing things just right.

As I recall, morphology and etymology are completely different issues.

The morphology of a word deals only with its current form and meaning. A morpheme has value ONLY as defined by it’s current use in the language in question. Ident has, as it stands, no value in the english language today (except, perhaps, as an abbreviation…?) and so, is not a morpheme on it’s own.

‘Ident’ is, etymologicaly, derived from another morpheme in another language, but that does not make it morphologically independent in this language.

As you go further along in linguistic studies, they will begin to deal with the complexities of the “science” (and I use the term VERY loosely), and will address issues like these in greater detail.

The real problem here is that the terminology of structural linguistics like “morpheme”) is not as generally useful or precise as it’s supposed to be. Yes, in a certain sense, “identify” is one unit, since it can’t be broken up to be productive units for most grammatical processes. On the other hand, in some sense, “identi” and “fy” are units that can be found in other words and are recognized as units by some English speakers. Your teacher has chosen a definition of “morpheme” which is reasonably consistent, although in some sense it may not be the best way of dividing up English into units.

Missing parathesis added:

The real problem here is that the terminology of structural linguistics (like “morpheme”) is not as generally useful or precise as it’s supposed to be. Yes, in a certain sense, “identify” is one unit, since it can’t be broken up to be productive units for most grammatical processes. On the other hand, in some sense, “identi” and “fy” are units that can be found in other words and are recognized as units by some English speakers. Your teacher has chosen a definition of “morpheme” which is reasonably consistent, although in some sense it may not be the best way of dividing up English into units.

And then I misspelled “parenthesis.”

From one fellow linguistics minor to another – bingo. This is the crux of the matter.

Catalyst, the morphology of English words has no relation at all to their etymology. The focus of morphology is on description of the forms (qua forms) of words as they are at a given point in time. Etymologists are interested in the history of words.

Now then: on to morphemes. Your teacher is trying to get you to understand the difference between free morphemes and bound morphemes in English. A free morpheme carries meaning in isolation – i.e. red, airplane, identity, think, identify, etc. The meaning carried must be consistent within the language being studied – that’s why it doesn’t matter in linguistic morphology is part of a free morpheme meant something in another language at another point in time.

Bound morphemes – typically, but not exclusively, grammatical markers – cannot carry meaning on their own when the context of their use is taken into account. Examples among many would be the plural -s marker, the possesive -'s, the past tense marker -ed, and the adjectival qualifier -ish. English also has many derivational affixes such as the -dom of kingdom, the -hood of knighthood, the -ism of humanism, and the -ship of stewardship.

And yes, there exists side by side in English a free morpheme hood, and a bound morpheme -hood (and there are some other instances of this in English). Why? The differing grammaticality of the following two exchanges shows the differences:

A: What kind of hood are you looking for?
B: A nice, wooly hood.

A: *What kind of -hood are you going for?
B: Knighthood … or maybe preisthood if I can’t get the knack of jousting.

Identity and identify are both single free morphemes in English because English borrowed the forms in whole from French and Latin – *ident was not borrowed alone with the suffixes being tacked on later. Complicating matters is that -(i)fy is also a bound morpheme in English that happened to be back-formed from Latinate free morphemes in English . Therefore one can refer to a person becoming wimpified, for example.

Yeah, it could be more straightforward and intuitive, and your teacher could be exlaining it better. But that’s some basics of linguistics morphology.

All right, that’s it. You can turn in your linguist card anytime before next month’s meeting.

(Did I ever tell you about the time I misspelled “Linguistics” on our colloquium flyer…two weeks in a row?! :smack: )