“I celebrate myself;” so says Walt Whitman, beginning Leaves of Grass, “And what I assume you shall assume; / For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.”

Ah, atom to atom: a shape-shifter! A form that can become another form, taking only the barest bits from one to the other. Later in the same, Whitman writes

I am exposed, cut by bitter and angry hail – I lose my breath,
Steep’d amid honey’d morphine, my windpipe throttled in fakes of death;
At length let up again to feel the puzzle of puzzles,
And that we call BEING.

Ah, she’s alright, morphine… but it is only when it lets up, when one sees again not the peace but the piece, the piece in the puzzle, that we can find being: the concrete bits come together and reality takes shape.

So, too, is it with words: they are made of bits, linguistic pieces, shapes that in many cases can only take real form when combined with other forms. What can you say is -ed, or -y, or -s, or -th by itself? And what of bits that change shape all by themselves – anger to angr, long to leng? What shape shall they assume, and what bits belong to what?

Do I blaspheme against the language, the sanctity of our words? Ah, but one who sees a language as being but one way is a veritable Polyphemus: a name that speaks of many words, but designates one who is but half seeing.

The pheme in blaspheme and Polyphemus, you see, is from Greek phemos “speaking”. But the pheme in morpheme is not. It is not a morpheme, not productively or even historically, even though morphemes undeniably have to do with words and speech.

Morpheme, as it happens, is modelled on phoneme. And what is phoneme? An anglicization of phonema, Greek, “sound”; it refers to a sound that is accepted as being an identifiable sound in a given language. Phonemics is the study of the sounds that languages identify as discrete sounds. Phonetics is its counterpart: the study of actual speech sounds, which are rather more in number. For instance, the /n/ in Banff is not exactly the same sound as the /n/ in Toronto, nor is the /l/ in Calgary just the same as the one in Halifax, but we perceive them as the same sound nonetheless, local variation notwithstanding.

This distinction is the emic/etic distinction: the codified (culture-internal) versus the objectively actual. Dizzying? Emetic? It is relevant. For there are morphemics, but no morphetics – words, and parts of words, have only a culturally determined reality, not any objective form at all. A piece from which a word is made up is called a morphememorph for shape, and eme as we have just said.

So steeped is the morpheme steep plus the morpheme ed; windpipe is a compound made of two morphemes that make whole words unto themselves. And then there are the morphemes that are not functioning separate bits now but historically were bits that made up the words: throttle is from throat (shifted in shape) plus le (a frequentative suffix), but one may not make a similar word now from chest or tweet or what have you plus le. Oh, and as just seen, a morpheme may shift shape all of its own: anger to angr, historically, for instance, but also lose to los plus ed to t to make lost, and crazy to crazi (note the change in pronunciation! pronunciation is primary!) plus ly to make crazily.

Oh, dizzying it is, but not emetic: intoxicating. One may be entranced, set into a reverie, as by the god of dreams, Morpheus, so called because he could take on the shape of any person (why? because he was none other than they, in the mind of the dreamer). And it is after him that morphine was named: the principal alkaloid of opium. Inhale your words, and dream; but it is only when they take solid form that they arise from their slumber, come together as pieces of a puzzle, and are fit to come forth through the windpipe as words.

One response to “morpheme

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