Written by Steven Lewis in 1998 and revised in 2009.

The building blocks of the English written language are some 50 characters, including the 26 letters of the alphabet, 10 numbers and a few punctuation marks. Spoken language, on the other hand, is composed of fundamental units of sound called phonemes. The number of letters in a written word may not equal the number of phonemes. For example:

"Hate" contains four letters but only 3 phonemes. The "e" is silent.

"Eight" contains 5 letters but only two phonemes (āt).

Moreover, one letter may be interpreted as a different phoneme in different contexts. For example:

"Hate" and "hat" each contain 3 phonemes, but the phoneme represented by the "a" in "hate" is different from that represented by the "a" in "hat." Although the "e" in "hate" is silent, it does affect the pronunciation of the "a." We say that the "a" in "hate" is the long "a" phoneme symbolized by a dash (macron) above the "ā," the "a" in "hat" is the short "a" phoneme symbolized by a curved line (breve) above the "ă." In the word "härd," the "a" has an entirely different sound, symbolized by two dots above it (the umlaut). In these three words we have the "same letter" taking on 3 different pronunciations (phonemes) in different contexts.

Often two letters will combine to form one phoneme. The "ph" in the word "phrenic" forms a single sound, as does "th" in the word "think" and "ch" in "child." You can see that although we have 26 letters in the English alphabet, we have many more than 26 unique sounds (phonemes).

The building blocks of written or spoken language can be put together to produce the fundamental building blocks of meanings -- the morphemes. There are three types of morphemes:

  • base or root morphemes carry the principal meaning of a word;
  • prefix morphemes appear at the beginning of a word and modify its base meaning;
  • suffix morphemes occur at the end of a word and modify its base meaning.

    The term "exocytosis" contains all 3 types of morphemes:

  • "cyt" is the root morpheme, derived from a Greek word that means "cell."
  • "exo" serves as a prefix that means "to the outside."
  • "osis" serves as a suffix that means "condition of."

    Putting the three morphemes together we can infer that the word "exocytosis" refers to the process whereby cells secrete substances to their exterior.

    The term "sublingual" can also be divided into 3 morphemes, including root, prefix and suffix.

  • "Lingu" is derived from the Latin word for "tongue" and carries the primary meaning of the term and serves as the base morpheme.
  • "Sub" modifies the meaning of the base morpheme and serves as a prefix morpheme that means "beneath."
  • "Al" acts as a suffix morpheme and means "pertaining to."

    Putting the three morphemes together we can infer that the term "sublingual" means "pertaining to beneath the tongue."

    "Osteoarthritis" also contains 3 morphemes, but it lacks a prefix. "Osteo" is from a Greek term that means "bone," "arthr" is from a Greek word meaning "joint." Both morphemes serve as base or root elements in "osteoarthritis." "Itis," meanwhile, serves as a suffix from a Greek word that means "inflammation of." Putting it all together we can infer that "osteoarthritis" means "inflammation of bones and joints."

    Perhaps you can see the value in learning to dissect words into their fundamental units of meaning -- the morphemes. If you learn the meanings of a few common morphemes, like "itis" and "sub" and "arthr" and "cyt," you will be able to infer meanings of words that contain these morphemes even though you may never have seen the whole words before.

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