ASL University | Bookstore | Catalog | Dictionary | Lessons | Resources | Syllabi | Library

ASL Linguistics: Morphemes: Form vs. Process

This discussion is to clarify your understanding of "form morphemes" and "process morphemes."

Consider this question:

(Choose the best answer, a, b, c, or d.)
 The use of affixation in ASL would result in the creation of a: 
a. form morpheme 
b. process morpheme
c. lexicalized sign
d. reduplicated sign

The correct answer is "a. form morpheme."
This topic is discussed on pages 54-56 of the text (depending on which edition), "Linguistics of American Sign Language."

Apparently, this is a challenging topic for a number of you even after you have "read the text."

If you already understand form morphemes and process morphemes, you don't need to read any further.

If not, allow me to explain.

First of all, are we clear about what a morpheme is?

It is a unit of language.
It is meaningful.
It can't be broken down into smaller meaningful units.
It can be broken down into smaller units that do not have independent meaning (phonemes).

Next, do we know what a bound morpheme is?

It is a morpheme that must be attached to another morpheme. If it becomes unattached, it becomes meaningless.
For example the letter "s." The letter "s" doesn't mean anything by itself. But add it to the word cat and the letter "s" means "more than one."

The word "cat" is a free morpheme. It has meaning all by itself and doesn't need to be attached to some other word to have meaning.

The word "elephant" is also a free morpheme. You can't break it down into smaller meaningful parts.

If you are a class clown like me, you might ask, "What about 'ant?'" Ant is a word and it is contained within the word elephant. So that means I've broken "elephant" apart and found a smaller meaningful unit, right? 
Ahem ... no. Just because two words (lexemes) share some of the same phonemes doesn't mean they share meaning.
For example, "eleph" doesn't mean "half of an elephant." Nor is an elephant a "big ant." 

Another example. The letter "i." This is a phoneme. If I capitalize it and stick it in a sentence like, "I am hungry" it becomes a morpheme. All morphemes are also phonemes or combinations of phonemes. The word "I" is a morpheme made up of the phoneme "i." 

Next item to get clear on: Segmental Structures and Articulatory Bundles.

A sign is a combination of a segmental structure and an articulatory bundle.

Ask yourself, what is a sign a combination of?

Then answer: a segmental structure and an articulatory bundle.

Next ask yourself, what is a a segmental structure?

That is a combination of "moves and holds."
We commonly call this "movement."

Remember what the parameters of a sign are?
There are five of them.
1. Movement
2. Handshape
3. Location or position
4. Palm Orientation
5. Nonmanual markers (facial expressions and various body language--like head tilts and cheek to shoulder movements).

So, let's think. If "Segmental Structure" is another name for "movement." That means "Articulatory Bundle" must be another name for the other four items on the list. 

Segmental Structure = Movement
Articulatory Bundle = Handshape, Location, Palm Orientation, and NMMs. 

Segmental Structure = the holds and movements in a sign
Articulatory Bundle = everything else that makes up a sign

Segmental Structure = the way a sign proceeds through space
Articulatory Bundle = what a sign looks like and where it is done

Segmental Structure = the process
Articulatory Bundle = the form

The form of a sign is the handshape, the orientation of that handshape, the location of that handshape, and the NMMs (nonmanual markers) that accompany it.

The process of a sign is how you move it.

Okay, now getting down to form morphemes and process morphemes:

If I change the sign for "teach" to mean "teaching" I do so by reduplicating the sign. I do the movement twice. Which is to say I have changed the process of the sign. I am still using the same form (handshape) for the sign, but the process uses two movements instead of one.

If I change the sign TEACH to mean TEACHER, I do so by adding the "AGENT" affix.
I still do the exact same type and amount of movement for the sign TEACH, but then I add an additional form (handshape) to the end of the sign.

In each case, I have changed the meaning of the sign TEACH.
If I have a different meaning, I must have a different morpheme or an additional morpheme creating that difference in meaning.

In the case of "teaching" I added a movement.
In the case of "teacher" I added a handshape.

The word "teaching" consists of the morphemes "teach" and "ing."
The word "teacher" consists of the morphemes "teach" and "er."

The morpheme "ing" was created by a movement. (A process)
The morpheme "er" was created by a handshape. (A form)

When you change the meaning of a sign by modifying its movement, that modification of movement is in and of itself a morpheme. That "movement" is a process morpheme. The sign CHAIR is a combination of SIT + "double movement." The sign CHAIR has two morphemes. One of them is the free morpheme SIT. The other is the process morpheme "double movement."

CHAIR and SIT are an example of a noun-verb pair.

The nouns of noun-verb pairs are created by using process morphemes.

Signs like ACT, LAW, LIBRARY, PAINT, TAKE-A-PICTURE, and TEACH become the signs ACTOR, LAWYER, LIBRARIAN, PAINTER, PHOTOGRAPHER, and TEACHER by using the form morpheme "AGENT."

For your information: The "double movement" process morpheme and the "AGENT" form morpheme are both "bound morphemes." They have to be "bound" to their base sign in order to make sense. Waving "nonsense" handshapes in the air "twice" means nothing. Walking up to someone and signing "AGENT" will only serve to confuse or amuse that person.

So now, getting back to our discussion of the question:

The use of affixation in ASL would result in the creation of a: 
a. form morpheme 
b. process morpheme
c. lexicalized sign
d. reduplicated sign

TEACH becomes TEACHER via the process of affixation. (Affixing the AGENT sign to the TEACH sign.) In doing so we are employing a form morpheme rather than a process morpheme. 

According to the text, "Linguistics of American Sign Language," the term affixation means, "the process of adding bound morphemes to other forms to create new units." 

I would clarify that to state: "Affixation is the process of adding bound form morphemes to other forms to create new units." The authors do go on to give examples that make it clear that what they are talking about in regard to affixation is indeed the adding of another form to an existing form. The example they give for ASL is that of adding the AGENT suffix to various verbs like TEACH and LAW. They also point out that form morphemes "s" and "er" are typical English affixes.

Another important point from this discussion is that ASL very seldom creates nouns from verbs by using form morphemes. ASL mostly uses processes morphemes to make nouns from verbs.


Dr. Bill's new iPhone "Fingerspelling Practice" app is now available!   GET IT HERE!  

NEW!  Online "ASL Training Center!"  (Premium Subscription Version of ASLU)  ** CHECK IT OUT **

Also available: "" (a mirror of less traffic, fast access)  ** VISIT NOW **

Want to help support Lifeprint / ASLU?  It's easy!