Morphology and why it’s key for good translation

by brenton

What is Morphology?

One of the branches of linguistics is morphology i.e., the study of word formations.  We may think that a word is the smallest unit of language, but, often, a word can be divided into two or more units.  Take, for example, the word “smallest” itself and you will see that it’s composed of two units, “small” and “est.”  In any given language, many words are composed of more than one unit and each unit is referred to as a morpheme.

Free and Bound Morphemes

Within morphemes themselves, there are classifications; there are free morphemes such as “cat” and “dog,” and there are bound morphemes which generally consist of prefixes and suffixes.  Prefixes come before root words and suffixes come after them.  In the English language, “un” is a common prefix which comes before the root word, converting it into its opposite.  For example “clean” becomes “unclean” and “forgettable” becomes “unforgettable.”  Common suffixes include “ing” and “ness,” so “like” can turn into “liking” and “happy” into “happiness.”

Obviously, adding a prefix or a suffix to a root word changes the meaning in some way or the other.  In terms oftranslation services, this is important to keep note of because different languages have different ways of changing the sense of a word.  In general, the addition of “ly” to a word in English is equivalent to the addition of “ment” in French.  For example, “slowly” in English is “lentement” in French.  However, this rule doesn’t always apply because, in French, the suffix “ment” is sometimes used in the sense of the suffix “ing,” so “rapprochement” is “bringing together.”  It’s easy to assume that word formation is the same in two different languages, and there may be similarities, but often, there are differences as well, which a translator needs to keep track of.

Derivational and Inflectional Morphemes

Other kinds of morphemes include derivational morphemes which change the sense of the root word.  For example, adding “ness” to “happy” changes it from an adjective to a noun.  In the case of inflectional morphemes, only the verb’s tense or the noun’s number is changed.  For example, adding “s” to “dog” results in “dogs” which just changes the word from singular to plural but doesn’t result in any changes in meaning.

Once again, a translator needs to be aware of the difference between these two kinds of morphemes so that s/he uses the correct one, changing the sense of the word when necessary but retaining it when unnecessary.

We think of words as the basic units of language in everyday life, but this analysis shows that morphemes are smaller than words and are the building blocks of language.  Most translators have an intuitive understanding of the morphemes of different languages, but a good translator is one who remains aware of how subtle differences in word formation can result in different translations.  Contact us for translations that will meet your needs from the ground up.

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