Difference Between Morpheme and Allomorph

Morpheme vs Allomorph

Difference between morpheme and allomorph is a subject that falls under the field of linguistics. A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit of a language. In this sense, a morpheme conveys a meaning. An allomorph, on the other hand, refers to the different forms of a single morpheme. These different variants can be noted in the morpheme plural, the past participle ending, etc. The specialty is that an allomorph has the ability to bring about changes in the pronunciation and the spellings. This article attempts to provide a basic understanding of morphemes and allomorphs while elaborating the difference between the two.

What is a Morpheme?

A morpheme is the smallest meaningful elements of a language. It cannot be further broken into smaller parts. The specialty is that a morpheme has a meaning. For example, when we say bag, cat, dog, elephant, these are all morphemes as they cannot be segmented into smaller parts any further. Mainly, in linguistics, we identify two types of morphemes. They are,

• Free morphemes

• Bound morphemes

If a morpheme has the ability to stand on its own without the support of another form, we identify it as a free morpheme. But, if it cannot stand on its own and requires the assistance of another form, we identify it as a bound morpheme. Prefixes and suffixes are some examples for bound morphemes. If a bound morpheme wishes to convey a meaning, it needs to be intertwined with another form. For example, the morpheme ‘ness’ conveys no meaning, but when connected with another morpheme such as ‘attractive’, it conveys a meaning as it becomes ‘attractiveness’.

Difference Between Morpheme and Allomorph- Example of Morpheme

Cat is a morpheme.

What is an Allomorph?

Allomorphs are the different varieties that exist of the same morpheme. Based on the context, these can bring about changes in the spelling and also in pronunciation. When one allomorph of a morpheme is replaced with another it can change the meaning completely. Let us attempt to understand the function of the allomorph through an example of the morpheme plural. Under this single morpheme, there are 3 variant allomorphs. They are,

• /s/ – cats

• /z/ or – dogs

• /iz/ – matches

Note how the pronunciation defers in each case. Even though a single morpheme is in play, it has different allomorphs that bring about changes not only in the pronunciation, but also in the spellings. It has to be remembered in mind that the allomorph is always conditioned by its phonetic environment. Also, in some cases, the morpheme plural takes a complete different turn.

• Ox- oxen

• Man- men

• Sheep –sheep

In each case, the morpheme plural is different. This highlights that even though it is a single morpheme plural, it has a variety of allomorphs. Not only in the morpheme plural, but in the past participle also the varied allomorphs can be identified.

Difference Between Morpheme and Allomorph - Example of Allomorph

Matches is an allomorph.

What is the difference between Morpheme and Allomorph?

The difference between the morpheme and allomorph can be summarized in the following manner.

• A morpheme is the smallest meaningful elements of a language.

• There two types of morphemes as free morphemes and bound morphemes.

• An allomorph can be defined as a single variety of a morpheme.

• A single morpheme can have different allomorphs.

• These can be noted when studying the morpheme plural, the past participle endings, etc.


Images Courtesy: 

  1. Cat by Alecxo (CC BY 2.5)
  2. Matches by Logan Ingalls (CC BY 2.0)