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I am curious how tightly packed morphemes can be in English words. Do any of you happen to know which English word has the most morphemes per syllable, or know how to find out?

These are the best I've found so far:

fourths (3 morphemes, one syllable)

firsts, fifths, sixths, eighths, ninths (same)

And a similar question: which word has the fewest morphemes per syllable?

I haven't thought about this one as much, but this was the best I could think of off the top of my head:

anthropomorphism (3 morphemes, 6 syllables)

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1 Answer 1

You coooould do a rough search computationally. But by a process of induction, I suspect it´s not worth it:

I suspect that it will be more likely to be short words like your "fourths" example that give the highest ratio-- once you start getting longer words, where extra morphemes are added with affixes, it's rare for such prefixes/suffixes to not themselves constitute a syllable, so overall, adding more affixes won't improve the ratio but is more or less guaranteed to decrease it.

It also depends a bit on what you call a "morpheme", of course. "goes" is uniquely present tense, third person singular. So does that mean it is 4 morphemes for a single syllable? (the verb root plus the latter three).

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goes is only two morphemes. The es is a morpheme that communicates, in this case, that the verb before it is present tense, third person singular. –  Peter Olson Jul 9 '11 at 23:00
@Peter: but present tense, third person and singular are all units of meaning. English has characteristics of analytic, synthetic and fusional languages; the polymorphemic nature of affixes like the es in goes is one of its fusional characteristics. –  bye Jul 9 '11 at 23:58
@Stan es cannot be split up into three units of meaning. es, in English, unlike the equivalent affix in agglutinative languages, is one indivisible unit of meaning. Thus, while it semantically communicates more than one thing, it is a morphological unit. –  Peter Olson Jul 10 '11 at 0:30
@peter: that is the very definition of a fusional structure -- that a single, atomic affix carries more than one unit of meaning. Of course you can't "split it up", but that doesn't mean that it only carries one morpheme. –  bye Jul 10 '11 at 5:22
@Stan I think it is quite clear that we are using different definitions of morpheme. –  Peter Olson Jul 10 '11 at 5:42

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