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Morphophonemic Rules Theory, Its Pros and Cons Term Paper


Linguistics is the study of language, its form, meaning, and possible context. There are many theories and branches in this study, and each of them has its history, worth, and impact on the development of a language. Morphophonemics is the central topic for consideration in this paper. It is defined as one of the branches of linguistics that deals with the relations that can be developed between phonology and morphology. A phoneme is a sound unit with its functions and peculiarities, and a morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in the language (Radford, Atkinson, Britain, Clahsen, & Spencer, 2009).

These units cannot be ignored because the quality and essence of every word a person pronounces are defined by the sound changes that occur in a morpheme. In this paper, the evaluation of morphophonemic rules and the relations that can be developed between phonology and morphology will be given to comprehend the worth of theory of morphophonemic rules and the explanations of the theory’s supporters and opponents. The interactions between morphology and phonology have a long history, and the existing morphophonemic rules serve as the best proof that the supporters of the theory succeeded in their ideas to analyze the changes in word forms and the effects of these changes on words’ pronunciation and to implement a phonological rule that can be restricted to a certain morphological environment.


The point is that even the smallest word may have several components, and each component may have its functions and peculiarities. A morpheme is considered to be the smallest unit of a language. Some people may confuse it with a word. Still, such opinion is mistaken because, in comparison to a word that can be used and stand free, a morpheme may be dependent on and connected to another morpheme that can provide the first morpheme with meaning. In linguistics, there is a morphological type of analysis within the frames of which the construction of words is evaluated, and the word is discussed in terms of free, bound, root, and affix morphemes.

Meyer (2005) offers to classify these morphemes in the following way: a group of lexical morphemes that consists of free (the dog, head, etc.) and bound morphemes (cranberry) and a group of grammatical morphemes that include inflectional morphemes (interesting or created) and derivational morphemes (rewrite or fastest). Some allomorphs differ from other types of morphemes due to the differences in pronunciation but identity in their semantics. Zero or null morphemes create another type that is characterized by the “invisible” changes in the word that can be observed with the help of additional determiners such as an article or a pronoun.

Words may consist of one morpheme or have three different morphemes at the same time. For example, there is one free morpheme bed. It has its meaning (the place where a person can sleep), it can stand alone, and it can be used in different sentences and combines with different words. There is another word, managers. There are three morphemes in this word, and each of them has its function and meaning. Manage identifies the process people are involved in, er tells that this word introduces a doer of an action, s informs about the number, plurality. The first morpheme is free. It can stand alone and contain meaning. Two other morphemes are bound and can be used to provide a free morpheme with the required number of characteristics and specifications.

Linguists cannot ignore the worth of morphological analysis to explain how people should build and use words following the same comprehensive meaning. As soon as people can comprehend the idea of morphology, they can be one step closer to the possibility to speak correctly and clearly. However, morphology is not the only branch that has to be taken into consideration. The role of phonemes cannot be ignored.


If morphemes are the smallest language units, phonemes are defined as the “smallest distinguishable unit of a speech signal” (Sarma & Sarma, 2014, p. 114). Any speech process is incomplete without the process of segmentation of phonemes from its word parts. Some morphemes may have meanings and stand alone. Phonemes are deprived of such a possibility because they do not have any meaning by their nature.

Still, as soon as phonemes are combined, they can create words that make sense. The combination of phonemes results in the formation of free morphemes or separate words. Phoneme segmentation is the process that helps to recognize the sounds and repeat them to pronounce the whole word. As a rule, the analysis of phonemes and their segmentation is represented with the help of slashes. For example, the word pen has three different phonemes that can be introduced in the following way /p/, /e/, /n/. In this case, three different letters have three different phonemes that help to sound the word properly.

However, there are cases when two consonants or vowels are blended and create one particular sound. For example, the word cheese consists of six letters, still, there are only four phonemes that can be identified such as /t/, /ʃ/, /i:/, and /z/. The phonemes differ from the letters, and linguists try to explain the worth of phonology as the field within the frames of which it is possible to investigate the ways of how sounds are made, to clarify the meanings of sounds, and to learn how to pronounce words and identify the words heard.

Sometimes, people confuse a phoneme with a phone. Still, there is a list of differences that has to be clarified. For example, the representation of these units is different. The brackets are used for phones (e.g. [p] or [o]), and the slashes are used for phonemes (e.g. /p/ or /o/). The pronunciation of phones is defined, and the pronunciation of phonemes depends on allophones.

In brief, phonemes are the sounds of morphemes. During a long period, linguists and theorists argued about the necessity to combine the basis of phonology and morphology to help learners comprehend the way of building and pronouncing words in the right way. There are many supporters, who admit that these two studies cannot be studied separately. At the same time, there are many opponents of the theory, who base their opinions on the contradictions of the morphophonemic rules. In the following sections, the relations between morphemes and phonemes will be discussed.

The History of Morpheme-Phoneme Relations

The history of morpheme-phoneme relations can be traced in the middle of the 1900s when Zellig Harris offered a new method with the help of which it is possible to group phonemes into morphemes regarding their distributional properties that can be used to “determine whether an item in a sequence of phonemes constitutes a morpheme without reference to meaning” (Griffiths, Purver, & Wiggins, 2015). This method is based on the possibility to use counts of each phoneme in a corpus that is relative to the position in a sequence that can be defined in a set of the data (Griffiths, Purver, & Wiggins, 2015).

In the 19th century, many linguists paid their attention to the historical and comparative aspects of linguistics because the comparison of morphological systems was a crucial point that helped to establish the genetic relations between languages. At the same time, many morphological investigations were conducted based on the relations that could be observed between morphology and phonology (Frawley, 2003). The researchers come to the conclusion that the morphological structure may introduce the number of morphemes in a word and the way they can be realized phonetically, and the phonological structure of a word can reflect the morphological structure remaining not isomorphic to the same structure (Booij, 2005).

In the middle of the 1960s, Chomsky and Halle offered the idea to investigate the possible phonological interpretation of morphologically complex words. It was the period when the majority of linguists accepted the possibility to combine the issues that could be identified in terms of a morphological analysis regarding the results that could be observed at the end of a phonological analysis (Radford et al., 2009).

From that period, several linguists and researchers offered their opinions and theories concerning the relations between morphology (word formation) and phonology (word sounds) and underlined how complex the structure of such relations was. Therefore, some people protect and develop the idea of the relations between morphology and phonology, and some people stay the opponents of the theories that explained the peculiarities of morphophonemic rules.

The Relationship between Phonology and Morphology

In linguistics, many fields can be investigated in terms of their interfaces with each other. For example, phonetics has certain relations with phonology, and morphology is related to syntax. Each type of relations has its role and impact on how people may comprehend the linguistic peculiarities. In this paper, the relations between phonology and morphology are investigated. The interface between these two fields is called morphophonology, also known as morphophonemics. It deals with different phonetic alternations of phonemes and morphemes that occur across the boundaries of morphemes.

There are many ways in which phonology may influence the field of morphology and vice versa. Still, not much attention is paid to the relations that can be properly developed between these two different branches of linguistics. A morphophonemic analysis is the attempt to introduce and prove the worth of the rules that can be used to explain how different sound changes may occur in morphemes and the reasons for why these changes should matter.

There are many cases when the same boundary morphemes are combined with root morphemes and sound in a different way. It is the essence of morphophonemics that results in different pronunciation options of the same morpheme. Morphophonemics aims at analyzing such changes and creating a system with the help of which learners, especially foreign learners, can comprehend why the changes take place in English.

One of the frequent examples, when the same morpheme can be pronounced differently, is the combination of s or es plural morphemes with nouns or verbs to indicate the number. Three types of phonemes can be offered to the same plural morpheme s: hands /hands/, faces /faisiz/, and flats /flats/. Another example can be observed with the tense morpheme ed: coped /opt/, ended /endid/, and hugged /hugd/. In all these cases, it is not enough to know some phonetic or morphological rules. It is necessary to investigate the essence of morphophonemic rules, their creation, and the discussions that may occur.

Morphophonemic Rules

A morphophonemic rule is usually compared to a phonological rule. Still, there are certain restrictions to a specific morphological environment. Regarding such an explanation, it is possible to suggest that any morphophonemic rule is sensitive to the environment it has to be applied. It is the main difference between a morphophonemic rule and a phonological rule. Therefore, morphophonemic rules should identify the phonological aspects within the morphological environment that occur at morpheme boundaries. The selection of the most appropriate form of the morpheme is a crucial step that is taken regarding the environment.

There is a morphophonemic rule that touches upon the allomorphs of the plural in English (Meyer, 2005). For example, if the environment is a voiceless obstruent or even non-strident such as f, k, p, t, etc., the plural suffix s in English is pronounced as /s/ (lifts /lifts or top /tops). If the environment ends with a vowel or a voiced consonant, the same suffix s in English is pronounced as /z/ (hugs /hagz/ or peas /piz/). Finally, there is a rule that if the morpheme ends with a strident consonant, the suffix es should be added and pronounced as /iz/ (wishes /wiʃiz/ or foxes /foksiz/. All these morphophonemic rules are formulated regarding certain phonological terms but remain to be dependent on the morphological conditions. In fact, in English, there are many examples of morphophonemic alternations that have to be remembered (Meyer, 2005):

  • /ei/ may be turned into /æ/ – explain /iksplein/ – explanation /iksplænəʃn/
  • /ai/ may be turned into /i/ – deprive /dipraiv/ – deprivation /depriveiʃn/

The peculiar feature of all morphophonemic rules is that it is not necessary to memorize the words by heart and use them mechanically the way it happens to lexically conditioned plural or tense allomorphs. Chomsky and other supporters and developers of morphophonemic rules offered to try to predict the possible pronunciation regarding the existing phonological and morphological environments.

They worked with the rules with the help of which the past tense of regular verbs could be created and pronounced. As soon as a definite system of phonologically conditioned changes in pronunciation was developed, some linguists admitted the fact that morphophonemic rules and alternations could not be explained based on phonological principles only. Therefore, it was necessary to be excluded from phonology and created under its domain.

Still, several phonological restrictions in the same morphological units should be taken into consideration. As a result, linguists and language learners were divided on those, who supported the idea of the development of the theory about morphophonemic rules, and those, who could not understand and accept the necessity to create a separate field of morphophonemics but stay focused on the development of clear phonological rules.

For and Against the Theory of Morphophonemic Rules

Chomsky and Halle were the brightest supporters and developers of morphophonemic rules and the necessity to create an interface that could unite morphology and phonology. These linguists were fond of the idea to introduce a new field within the frames of which learners could comprehend the basics of pronunciation.

Chomsky and Halle (as cited in Harasowska, 1999) wrote the following: “the term ‘morphophonemic representation’ seems to use appropriate only if there is another linguistically significant level of representation, intermediate in abstractness between lexical and phonetic” (p. 17). At the same time, the authors did not want to underline the weaknesses of their theory because they believed that “the existence of such a level has not been demonstrated and that there are strong reasons to doubt its existence” (as cited in Harasowska, 1999, p. 17).

Regarding the uncertainties and the inabilities to prove the correctness of the chosen position, Chomsky and Halle faced several opponents and the developers of new alternative approaches that could be applied to morphophonemics. Hammond and Noonan organized the debates using the problems with the generativist position that was observed in the offered morphophonemic rules. It was hard to identify where natural and unnatural morphophonemic rules were, and linguists needed more clarifications.

Due to the existing problems, the definition of morphophonemics was not offered for a long time. Harris was one of the supporters of Chomsky and Halle’s theory, who succeeded in the description of a morphophoneme as a real unit, even if this achievement was made based on the already offered phonemes and their functions in a language. Nowadays, language learners and linguists define a morphophoneme as a kind of phoneme that can carry specific grammatical meaning and helps to identify the meaning of the word and pronounce it correctly. The development of the morphophonemic theory was successfully introduced by Kilbury. This author touched upon specific symbols and theoretical implications based on grammatical investigations of Chomsky and Halle.


In general, the history of the relations that are developed between phonology and morphology is long and complicated indeed. Linguists from different parts of the world offered their opinions and approaches to how morphemes and phonemes should be united to explain all changes and peculiarities of the word building. The creation of morphophonemic rules was a crucial step taken by the linguists, and learners got a wonderful opportunity to understand what they should change, and why these changes have to be considered. The developers of the theory faced numerous changes and challenges offering different opinions.

Still, the development of morphophonemic theory offered by Kilbury based on Chomsky, Halle, and Harrison’s works is the result of the several-decades work and evaluations. Each morpheme, phoneme, and morphophoneme has its function and provides a word with its meaning that has to be considered by a learner. There is no need to make fast conclusions or try to remember of morphophonemic rules by heart and use them automatically. It is necessary to understand that morphophonemics is the field that unites specific phonological peculiarities within a specific morphological context, and each case should be studied separately to comprehend how a word should be built and pronounced.


Booij, G.E. (2005). The grammar of words. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Web.

Frawley, W.J. (2003). International encyclopedia of linguistics, vol.4. New York, NY: Oxford University Press. Web.

Griffiths, S., Purver, M., & Wiggins, G. (2015). . Web.

Harasowska, M. (1999). Morphophonemic variability, productivity, and change: The case of Rusyn. New York, NY: Walter de Gruyter. Web.

Meyer, P.G. (2005). Synchronic English linguistics: An introduction. Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag. Web.

Radford, A., Atkinson, M., Britain, D., Clahsen, H., & Spencer, A. (2009). Linguistics: An introduction. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press. Web.

Sarma, M. & Sarma, K.K. (2014). Phoneme-based speech segmentation using a hybrid soft computing framework. New York, NY: Springer. Web.

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"Morphophonemic Rules Theory, Its Pros and Cons." IvyPanda, 16 July 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/morphophonemic-rules-theory-its-pros-and-cons/.

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IvyPanda. (2020) 'Morphophonemic Rules Theory, Its Pros and Cons'. 16 July.

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