When nothing means something:

In morpheme-based morphology, a null morpheme is a morpheme that is realized by a phonologically null affix (an empty string of phonological segments). In simpler terms, a null morpheme is an "invisible" affix. [Wikipedia]

Wikipedia says that examples in English include hiatus and co-operation. I didn't quite get how they have null morphemes. (Well, it is invisible, how am I supposed to see?)

I know that hiatus is the slight pause between two vowels coming together but not in the same syllable. Hiatus itself contains hiatus also. So, is that slight pause a null morpheme? But why do we need to explain with a null morpheme?

Another odd example in English is the invisible notion of singularity and plurality:

  • sheep = sheep + -Ø = ROOT ("sheep") + SINGULAR
  • sheep = sheep + -Ø = ROOT ("sheep") + PLURAL

I know that the plural form sheep was leveled with the singular in Old English. But why is the need of null morpheme here?

Can you please shed a light on this? Also, is null morpheme a well-accepted concept?

  • Interesting question, probably more for the linguistic site. – user66974 Jun 11 '15 at 6:09

The Wikipedia examples are not relevant. They are examples of insertion of a glide to prevent two vowels from being adjacent: specifically, a /j/ in hiatus and a /w/ in co-operation. That doesn't have anything to do with null morphemes.

As for the main question, "is null morpheme a well-accepted concept?", yes, it is, but it depends on your theory of inflectional morphology.

In incremental theories of morphology, inflectional morphology is information-increasing: each morpheme adds features to the stem. In this kind of approach, the feature PLURAL could be seen as the function of a morpheme added to a stem that is unspecified for number. For many words, the morpheme is realized as /s/ or /z/, e.g. cats, dogs. For others, the "morpheme" is some kind of floating vowel quality effect, as in mouse ~ mice. For examples like sheep, the morpheme is phonologically null. This is a necessary step if you believe that plurality can only be the result of adding a morpheme.

In realizational theories of morphology, on the other hand, lexical stems themselves are associated with a set of morphosyntactic features, which license the addition of certain affixes. In this kind of approach, there's no need for a phonologically null morpheme (though you could have one if you wanted).

Most popular theories of inflectional morphology these days are realizational rather than incremental, e.g. Distributed Morphology, A-morphous Morphology, Paradigm Function Morphology. Hope that helps, and let me know if anything needs clarification!


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.