Linguistics Morphological Change
Geert Booij
  • LAST REVIEWED: 19 September 2022
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0180


Morphology is the subdiscipline of linguistics that deals with the structure of words. The study of word structure comprises two domains: inflection and word formation. Inflection deals with the formal expression of morphosyntactic properties of words (such as number, case, and tense), whereas word formation concerns the ways in which words are made. Both types of morphology can be studied from a historical perspective. Commonly, the study of changes in inflection and word formation is referred to as diachronic morphology, or morphological change. Such changes are the effects of various form of language behavior (such as acquisition, processing, variation, storage, and lexicalization) or of language contact. The historical study of inflection focuses on three issues: how inflectional systems arise, how and why they change, and how they erode. The rise of inflection through the grammaticalization of words into inflectional affixes is an important domain of historical research. The historical study of word formation considers the emergence of and changes in word formation patterns. Syntactic structures may develop into morphological structures, and compound constituents may develop into affixes. Word formation processes may lose their productivity or completely disappear from a language. New morphological patterns may arise through the morphologization of once phonological patterns. For instance, the German umlaut, the alternation between back vowels and front vowels, was once triggered by the presence of suffixes with high vowels but, can be used in present-day German as a morphological process, as in the plural form of the German Vater “father,” Väter. Language contact can have all kinds of effects on the morphology of a language. For example, Germanic languages have borrowed greatly from French in the domain of word formation. Inflectional systems may simplify, owing to their being obtained in second-language acquisition. Creole languages and their morphology arise through contact between speakers with different native languages. Morphological change may also occur at the level of the individual word. The inflection of a word may change (e.g., from irregular to regular), and complex words may lose their morphological transparency (lexicalization). Morphological change functions as a testing ground for various theories of the nature and architecture of the grammar of natural languages; for providing a framework in which morphological changes can be properly interpreted and explained.

General Overviews

Overviews of morphological change are provided by textbooks and handbooks on morphology, such as Booij 2012; Joseph 1998; Joseph and Janda 2003; and Booij, et al. 2004. Brief discussions of morphological change can be found in textbooks on historical linguistics, such as Anttila 1972, McMahon 1994, Hock and Joseph 1996, and Crowley and Bowern 2010.

  • Anttila, Raimo. 1972. An introduction to historical and comparative linguistics. New York: Macmillan.

    A classic textbook on historical linguistics, with a focus on Indo-European languages. Part 2, “Historical Linguistics,” deals with the general question of why and how language changes. Gives several examples of morphological change.

  • Booij, Geert. 2012. The grammar of words: An introduction to linguistic morphology. 3d ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This textbook on morphology devotes a whole chapter (chapter 11, pp. 257–279) to the topic of morphology and language change that provides a good introduction to the range of phenomena and analytical issues involved.

  • Booij, Geert, Christian Lehmann, and Joachim Mugdan, eds. 2004. Morphology: An International Handbook on Inflection and Word Formation. Vol. 2. Berlin: de Gruyter.

    This volume contains ten articles on various aspects of morphological change, such as grammaticalization, morphologization, analogical change, reinterpretation, lexicalization, change in productivity, borrowing, and creolization. Also has seven articles in which morphological change within a number of language families (Germanic, Romance, Indic, Chinese, Arabic) is discussed.

  • Crowley, Terry, and Claire Bowern. 2010. An introduction to historical linguistics. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    This textbook offers a comprehensive survey of the study of language change and linguistic reconstruction. Chapter 10 deals with morphological change; chapter 11, with semantic and lexical change; chapter 12, with syntactic change and grammaticalization; and chapter 14, with the role of language contact in language change, including pidginization and creolization.

  • Hock, Hans Henrich, and Brian D. Joseph. 1996. Language history, language change, and language relationship: An introduction to historical and comparative linguistics. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

    This textbook stresses change in Indo-European languages. Chapter 5 covers analogy and change in word structure; there is also a section on change in the lexicon (chapters 7–9) and a number of chapters on the various external factors involved in language change.

  • Joseph, Brian. 1998. Diachronic morphology. In The handbook of morphology. Edited by Andrew Spencer and Arnold Zwicky, 351–373. Oxford: Blackwell.

    This handbook chapter can be used as an orientation to the study of morphological change.

  • Joseph, Brian D., and Richard Janda, eds. 2003. The handbook of historical linguistics. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    DOI: 10.1002/9780470756393

    This extensive handbook presents a comprehensive survey of types and theories of linguistic change. Part 4, “Morphological and Lexical Change,” has a number of articles on morphological change (analogical change, morphologization of syntax, the role of naturalness).

  • McMahon, April. 1994. Understanding language change. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139166591

    This textbook concentrates on the basic questions of historical linguistics: What is the origin of change, and how does it spread? Morphological change is considered in chapter 4, and much attention is given throughout to external change, in particular language contact effects and creolization.

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