In class today, during an activity when we were given the task of breaking down a list of words into morphemes, I had a disagreement with a professor who tried to convince me that the word "companionship" was composed of four morphemes: com-pan-ion-ship.

I argued that there were only two in the word (companion and ship), and that since companion is a borrowed word, it is irreducible in English. "Companion" was taken directly from French, as it is, and not derived in English. The morphemes "com", "pan", and "ion" are Latin, meaning nothing in English, and cannot be used freely to make other words.

Take for example the borrowed word "origami" (Japanese). Origami is just origami, it is irreducible. It was taken whole, as it is; there are no morphemes in that. However, someone who knew Japanese might be able to break that down into ori-gami, but that would be ridiculous because those are Japanese morphemes that mean nothing in English. We don't speak Japanese, just like we don't speak Latin or French.

What do you say?

  • 2
    But com- is a morpheme in English: compassion, compatriate, commission, etc. Knowing that it means "together" or "with" can help someone understand other words.
    – mkennedy
    Sep 1, 2015 at 19:13
  • 2
    Actually, someone knowing Japanese would break down origami as ori+kami: the morpheme ‘paper’ is kami. Sep 3, 2015 at 8:57
  • 2
    Have you tried discussing with your prof? He may take 'morpheme' to be etymologically significant pieces (and not care if they are productive). Can you come up with other examples to try out with your prof? What did they say about 'origami'?
    – Mitch
    Sep 7, 2015 at 15:13

6 Answers 6


I suppose it depends on how you define the two terms "foreign words" and "English morphemes." I would not call the English word "companion" a foreign word; to me that is just its etymological origin.

I think morphemes are generally considered a little more abstract and general than what you have in mind. In particular, I don't know of any requirement that they have to be apparent to linguistically naive native speakers. But in fact, Latin-derived morphemes such as the prefix com- are so common in modern English vocabulary that I think it's wrong to state that they never mean anything to English speakers. I also don't think there is any rule that all borrowed words are automatically mono-morphemic.

Regarding making new words from these morphemes (productivity): There are native English morphemes that are not productive, like the gain- prefix of gainsay. It's still considered a morpheme.

Taking companionship specifically

You agree with your professor that -ship is a distinct morpheme.

This gives us companion-ship.

Company vs. companion = a suffix -on or -ion?

The words company and companion seem to me to be related morphologically. If you agree, you can see that the "greatest common denominator" of these words is something like compan- or compani- (the latter works if we consider <i> and <y> to be purely graphical variants, and /i/ and /j/ to be allophonic or allomorphic variants that are conditioned by the presence or absence of a following vowel).

If companion and company are morphologically related, it seems to me that companion cannot be a single morpheme; it must have some other morpheme attached to the end. There are word pairs like relate/relat-ion-ship and un-ite/un-ion that show the putative -ion morpheme in a different context, so it seems reasonable to divide companion into compan-ion. (Note: "-tion" actually appears to be considered a morpheme by multiple linguists; “-tion in creation” is listed as a bound morpheme in these lecture notes for a Linguistics 101 course taught by Mark Liberman at the University of Pennsylvania. I suppose you could say that it carries meaning about the part of speech, since this suffix generally appears on nouns.) On the other hand, companion does behave a bit anomalously in some ways for a word with the suffix -(t)ion:

  • normally this suffix takes the form -tion or -sion. The word union is actually anomalous in lacking a t/s.
  • normally these words are abstract or represent the results of abstract processes; but companion refers to a concrete person.
  • normally, the letters a, e, or o are given their "tense" or "long" pronunciations when followed by a single consonant (at the "underlying" level; that is, not counting single sounds represented by doubled letters like the "ss" in obsession) and the suffix -ion. For example, creation and abrasion. But companion is pronounced with a short/lax a.

If we look at the history, companion was not really formed with a suffix -ion. The hypothetical Latin ancestor compāniō is thought to have been composed of the prefix com-, the combining form pani- of panis "bread," and the augmentative suffix (n-) (also seen in names such as Cicero). The Latin word passed into French, which is the immediate source of the English word.

Now, it doesn't make sense to me to analyze morphology on the basis of etymological knowledge that is not available to most native speakers. However, this information, plus the previously-mentioned anomalies if we interpret the suffix as -ion, does make me more inclined to analyse the word as compani-on.

Anyway, it doesn't affect the number of morphemes. This gives us compan-ion-ship or compani-on-ship.

Identifying the com- of companion as a prefix

As mkennedy and Adam say, com- exists as a prefix in many English words, usually meaning something like "together" or "with". Yes, most words with this prefix were taken from Latin whole rather than put together in English, but they are still English words now. So, we can separate this out as a distinct morpheme. Greg Lee points out another strong piece of evidence in his answer: the reduced quality of the first vowel. Apparently Chomsky and Halle's "The Sound Pattern of English" mentions the fact that morphologically simple words tend not to reduce the vowel of an initial closed syllable when the second syllable has stress: consider the pronunciations of "Montana," "spontaneous," "fondue," "bombard," "bombastic," "trombone," "conchoidal." Notice that there are reasons to identify "com-" is a separate morpheme even if we only look at other English words for comparison, not the original Latin words.

This gives us com-pan-ion-ship or com-pani-on-ship.

But is pan or pani really a morpheme in English?

I agree that it's questionable to identify pan(i) as a morpheme (especially one with the specific meaning "bread"), since I can't actually think of any other common English words that use this pan(i) "bread" morpheme (it's in pannier and panini, but neither of these seems fully naturalized to me, and it's in pantry, but not in a very recognizable form). A morpheme is supposed to be a meaningful unit, and it doesn't seem like native English speakers would associate any meaning with pan(i) on it's own.

This problem is not restricted to this one word, however. Two famous examples are the cran- and rasp- (or /ræz/ phonemically) in the words cranberry and raspberry. As far as I know, these are generally considered to be morphemes that don't have any meaning aside from their use in these particular words. But we can say that they are morphemes because berry is clearly a distinct morpheme.

With companionship, once we remove the clearly identifiable English morphemes com- and -ship, and the less clear but apparently present morpheme -ion or -on, we're left with what appears to be a morpheme pan, even if this type of analysis doesn't tell us what this morpheme means.

Edwin Ashworth's answer cites Language Through the Looking Glass: Exploring Language and Linguistics, by Marina Yaguello, translated by herself and Trevor A. Le V. Harris, which provides a different way of describing pan/pani that might be more useful or more appropriate. Yaguello speaks of "so-called paleo-morphemes, whose status and meaning are impenetrable for many speakers" (39). So maybe pan or pani is best classified as one of these "paleo-morphemes." It's unclear to me if Yaguello considers these a sub-class of morphemes: the next sentence suggests she does ("Such morphemes are all the more numerous in English, insofar as it is a hybrid language which has borrowed a great deal, in particular from the Classical and Romance languages") but the "turpitude" example cited in Edwin Ashworth's answer suggests to me that she doesn't. I'm not all that interested in terminological debates, but it is interesting to consider the limitations of the concept of the "morpheme."

  • 1
    Pannier is exclusively the side-bag on a bicycle, not generally used in England for baguettes, but certainly not uncommon.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 2, 2015 at 5:58
  • @AndrewLeach: Hmm, I guess maybe "pannier" is only uncommon to me. The link with bread for this word seems to be purely etymological, not synchronic.
    – herisson
    Sep 3, 2015 at 4:52
  • @AndrewLeach Interesting. To me, the bicycle sense is secondary to the donkey-bag sense, which is itself far secondary to the generic (bread) basket sense, though I admit the latter is quite old-fashioned and quaint. It's certainly not exclusively a bicycle side bag; to me not even primarily that. (That's discounting the side hoop sense entirely, of course—not quite sure how common that sense is at all, since side hoop frames are not something I frequently find myself discussing.) Sep 3, 2015 at 9:02
  • 1
    This photo is what I think of with panniers. I had thought that it illustrated the etymology -- perhaps with horses rather than bikes -- but maybe not.
    – Andrew Leach
    Sep 3, 2015 at 10:47
  • constructive, meticulous, if a bit laborious, but otherwise exemplary use of comparative methods: a missing link, that the original 'bread basket' generalizes to mean baskets of divers sorts, losing the original specific sense, smacks of metonymy.
    – user137463
    Sep 4, 2015 at 1:51

The following extract is from Language Through the Looking Glass: Exploring Language and Linguistics_Marina Yaguello, Trevor A. Le V. Harris; the conclusions summarised (from an acceptance of the views of the authors) are mine.

… An analysis which is valid from a historical or etymological point of view may be worthless from the synchronic point of view: that is, within the language system as it exists and is perceived by speakers at a given moment in its history….

Sometimes, the complete form of Latin words has come down to us, but not their constituent morphemes. [(1) morphemes are not common across all languages, even when one language has evolved largely from a previous one.]

If we compare amplitude and turpitude, for example, we can easily isolate the suffix -itude, which we also find in numerous abstract nouns and which is still productive….

But in the first case, ampl- is identified as a morpheme of English [(2) morphemes are defined for an individual language, and need that language specifying where it is not obvious], found in ample, amply, amplify, and so on, while turp- is not: an accident of history has meant that in one case the adjective and words derived from it have all passed into English, while in the other case they have not. So the independence of the [Latin] morpheme turp- can only rest on a knowledge of the Latin turpis. [(3) There may or may not be transfer of a morpheme from language A to language B. (If there is, language B is best regarded as containing an isomorphic morpheme rather than the same one.)]

The bottom line is that the correct identification of morphemes in individual words may be counter-intuitive.

  • How can "turp" not be a morpheme in "turpitude" if "-itude" is one? I had the same impression as Gary Clay Rector, that "when a morpheme is a part of a word, what remains when it is removed must also be a morpheme or a combination thereof." Is this view incorrect? What do we call non-morphemic constituents of words that still contribute to the meaning (since "turpitude" obviously does not mean the same thing as the suffix "-itude" by itself)?
    – herisson
    Sep 7, 2015 at 22:28
  • Sorry, I should have looked at the link. They seem to call these "paleo-morphemes."
    – herisson
    Sep 8, 2015 at 4:39
  • As you say, it's the usual confusion of terms being defined differently. You'd think they'd be able to come to a consensus on something as technical as 'morpheme'. Sep 8, 2015 at 14:37

A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit in a word. That is, a morpheme is irreducible in meaning, which is not restricted to a particular language. In Japanese, "origami" has two morphemes oru (meaning "fold") plus kami (meaning paper). That English has adopted the word without also adopting its constituents doesn't matter.

  • 1
    We don't speak Japanese. "Oru" and "Kami" are not meaningful units in English. "Origami" is a set word that cannot be reduced.
    – William
    Sep 1, 2015 at 19:39
  • Again, this has nothing to do with how we speak, but how words are constructed in meaningful units. Not least because we don't speak in morphemes. This is a linguistic consideration, not restricted to a particular language. These units come to us from the various languages that precede ours and those from which we borrow.
    – deadrat
    Sep 1, 2015 at 21:07
  • 2
    Your definition is inadequate. From Wikipedia: 'In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest grammatical unit in a language. In other words, it is the smallest meaningful unit of a language.' Morphemes are language-specific; 'oru' is not a morpheme in English; ELU is non-Japanese. Sep 1, 2015 at 22:00
  • It is a common enough usage to list foreign morphemes in English words. If you don't want to include the ones from Greek, then you'll be hard pressed to explain "anthropological" or its relationship to "anthropocentric" and "anthropoid." Contrary to the OP's assertion "com" is used quite freely to form new words even though it means nothing in English. "Pan," meaning bread, not so freely but still used. I did upvote your comment for the sneering condescension of "ELU is non-Japanese." Well played.
    – deadrat
    Sep 2, 2015 at 1:14
  • 1
    I would also challenge your assertion both that com- is used “quite freely” to form new words (it can be used, yes, but not nearly as freely as its allomorph co-, which is fully productive), and that it doesn't mean anything in English. If it didn't mean anything, it wouldn't be usable to form new word—or rather, it wouldn't add any meaning to the words it forms, which isn't the case. Sep 3, 2015 at 9:21

The questioner is right. Com- is a common prefix in English words borrowed from Latin or from French or other Romance languages, but it is not a morpheme in English. (And I see no way that pan and ion as used in the word campanionship can be considered English morphemes.) Even in Latin, the status of the prefix com- as a morpheme is iffy. Some linguists might call it a bound morpheme in Latin, just as we would call the -ship in companionship a bound morpheme.

  • 1
    Why is the status of "com" as a morpheme iffy in Latin? Also, where is the flaw in my reasoning here: "company" and "companion," "relate" and "relation" are morphologically related English words; one word of each pair has "-ion" and one does not, so "-ion" is a morpheme in English.
    – herisson
    Sep 3, 2015 at 4:42
  • 1
    Actually, maybe it would clarify matters if you mention the definition of "morpheme" you are using. Wikipedia says that "-tion" is a bound morpheme, so it doesn't seem ridiculous to me to analyse "-ion" as a morpheme. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Morpheme
    – herisson
    Sep 3, 2015 at 4:46
  • Try removing the supposed morpheme "com" or "ion." Are you left with a morpheme? "Panion" is not a morpheme or even a bound morpheme. Neither is "compan." Of course, there are morphemes in English spelt "pan" and "ion," but I doubt that anyone would use them to defend the assertion that "com-" is a morpheme in English. Merriam-Webster says a morpheme is "a word or a part of a word that has a meaning and that contains no smaller part that has a meaning," but when a morpheme is a part of a word, what remains when it is removed must also be a morpheme or a combination thereof. Sep 6, 2015 at 11:02
  • Why isn't the noun suffix "-ion" (or -tion, -sion etc) a morpheme? I've provided a link that shows that some professional linguists consider it so. You never define "morpheme," so all I can see is an argument from incredulity: you don't think "compan" looks like a morpheme or a combination of morphemes. But if "compan" is not a morpheme, then don't we have to say that "companion" and "company" are not synchronically related in English? That conclusion seems wrong to me. Or do you agree that they are synchronically related, but disagree that the relationship is morphemic?
    – herisson
    Sep 7, 2015 at 22:33

In the Sound Pattern of English analysis of English word stress, when the second syllable of a morphologically simple word has primary stress, the first syllable will have no stress only when it is open (does not end in a consonant) and has a lax vowel. (SPE does not refer to syllable structure, but that's essentially what C&H mean.) Otherwise, the first syllable will have a secondary stress.

For instance, the first syllable of "Nantucket", nan-, has some stress (which prevents its vowel from reducing to schwa), because that syllable is closed by the -n. However, the first syllable of "Connecticut" is open with a lax vowel, and consequently has no stress and its vowel reduces to schwa.

"Companion" is an apparent exception to this rule if it is indeed morphologically simple, since its first syllable is closed by -m yet remains without stress, and its vowel reduces to schwa. So we can conclude that, perhaps despite initial appearances, this word is not actually morphologically simple, and the com- is a separate morpheme.

In the SPE analysis, the Latinate prefixes of English, like com- from con-, are separate morphemes, and this affects their phonological realizations.

  • While the SPE analysis is important historically, are there any modern phonologists that consider it actually correct?
    – herisson
    Sep 7, 2015 at 22:23
  • @sumelic, I don't know what the current reputation of SPE is. Nor do I care. This argument from SPE is based on evidence from facts of English pronunciation, not on the eminence of the authors or the age of the text.
    – Greg Lee
    Sep 7, 2015 at 22:33
  • OK, but you can't reproduce the entire body of evidence that supports this argument here. I was wondering if it has been found that English pronunciation actually does follow this rule, or if the generalization is overly broad. For example, has anyone found any counterexamples?
    – herisson
    Sep 7, 2015 at 22:36
  • @sumelic, I'm sure there are counterexamples -- English word stress is refractory. The basic idea that closed syllables attract stress is correct, I think, and is part of every analysis I've seen, including my own in my article English Word and Phrase Stress. But I couldn't say whether there might be any plausible alternative account to SPE's of the lack of stress in the first syllable of "companion". I don't know of any.
    – Greg Lee
    Sep 7, 2015 at 22:50
  • @sumelic, That's exactly right.
    – Greg Lee
    Sep 8, 2015 at 2:32

It looks like you have to just take it case by case.

Companionship can be broken down into companion and ship, but companion uses the prefix com- (as mkennedy stated). This leaves you with three morphemes that are identifiable and useable in English: com, panion, and ship.

Panion obviously isn't a word, so in this case it is considered an affix because it can't stand alone, and it can't be broken down further because of this.

  • 2
    He actually argued that "pan" was a morpheme meaning bread, and "ion" something else I don't remember. That's ridiculous though because like "com", none have a meaning in english nor are they used to build other words. They're only recognizable parts in other borrowed words of the same origin.
    – William
    Sep 1, 2015 at 19:33
  • It is possible that pan is used to mean together (though it would be repetitive), but it is naturally a Greek prefix. Arguing that ion is a morpheme is a huge stretch in my opinion.
    – Adam
    Sep 1, 2015 at 19:39
  • It's possible to show that "panion" can be subdivided further by comparing the words "companion" and "company." These words are pretty clearly related morphologically, and the "greatest common denominator" is "-compan-" (or perhaps "-compani-"), so we know that "panion" must be divisible into at least two components. Also, there are words like "relationship" that show the putative "-ion" morpheme in a different context.
    – herisson
    Sep 1, 2015 at 21:29
  • Does it matter that com is not a productive prefix? It's not like you can say, "We are commovie-goers" to mean people who go to the movies together.
    – Paul
    Sep 1, 2015 at 21:37
  • 2
    @Paul: well, co- is a productive prefix, and it has the same etymological origin, so some people would probably call it an allomorph of com-.
    – herisson
    Sep 1, 2015 at 21:53

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