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The Structure of Language: Phonology, Morphology, and Syntax

A dial with different languages as the options

In the last post, I talked about language–what it is, and some differences between human and animal communication. Studying language through Anthropology falls under the field of Linguistic Anthropology. Now, I’d like to talk about the structure of language, which is called descriptive linguistics. Every language on Earth has a structure. We can study the structure of language through phonology, morphology, and syntax. I’ll discuss each of these concepts in this blog post.

Phonology

Phonology is the study of language sounds. Every spoken language is made up of sounds. There are a lot of possible sounds that we can produce, but each language only uses some of these sounds. In order to standardize the study of these sounds, the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA) was created. This shows all the possible sounds in languages throughout the world. Below is an image showing the IPA chart, from the International Phonetic Association (at this link).

Since each language only uses some of the possible sounds, the specific sounds in each language can be different. For example, the English sound made by “th” (as in “thanks”) is not found in the Dutch language. And the “r” sound is not found in Japanese. 

The smallest unit of sound that creates a difference in meaning is called a phoneme. A phoneme is a sound contrast that creates a different meaning. For example, consider the words, “bat” and “pat.” In English, these are two different words, even though the beginning sounds are very similar. The sound for the letter “b” is considered to be meaningfully different from the sound for the letter “p”–adding these 2 sounds to “at” makes 2 different words. So, the sound of the letter “b” and the sound of the letter “p” are both phonemes in English. Think of the words, “vat” and “fat.” In English, these are two different words, even though the sounds are very similar. So, the “v” sound and the “f” sound are two different phonemes. Some languages have only about 15 phonemes, while others have up to 100 phonemes. But, phonemes are not the same as letters– for example, English has 26 letters but 46 phonemes. 

Language Structure Phonology Morphology Syntax: Image of alphabet letters in different colors.

Different languages have different phonemes, meaning they recognize different sounds as significant and meaningful. Consider the English and Spanish languages. In English, the sounds made by the letters “b” and “v” are different phonemes. For example, the words “bat” and “vat” are considered different words. But in Spanish, the sounds made by the letters “b” and “v” are considered the same sound, and so they are the same phoneme in Spanish. 

Here’s another example, but with English and Japanese. In English, the sounds made by the letters “r” and “l” are different phonemes, so the words “rate” and “late” are considered two different words. But in Japanese, the sounds made by “r” and “l” are considered the same, and so they are the same phoneme. 

And here is yet another example. In English, there is a sound difference between the “p” sounds in the words “pin” and “spin.” Say these words out loud a few times. You should notice that there is a small pup of air after the “p” sound in “pin” but not in “spin.” Even though these are 2 different sounds, in English we consider them to be the same sound. But in other languages, like the Hindi language spoken in India, this sound difference matters, and creates different words.

Note: Technically, phonemes are written with slanted lines on each side of the sound, like this /b/ and non-phonemes are written with brackets, like this [b], but in this post, I just use quotation marks (“) to make things simpler for the reader.

Language structure phonology morphology syntax: Image of a man standing next to a chalkboard with hello written in different languages.

Morphology

Morphology is the study of meaningful sound sequences. This includes things like the tense of verbs (like the difference between “typing” and “typed”), plurals (like “cat” and “cats”), and compound words (like “lighthouse”). 

Phonemes do not usually carry meaning—they are just sounds. But if you put phonemes together, you can create a morpheme. Morphemes are the smallest units that are meaningful. For example, in English, “dog” is a morpheme, made up of the phonemes “d,” “o,” and “g.” But morphemes are not the same thing as words. For example, the word, “dogs” is made up of 2 morphemes—“dog” and “-s” (which means “more than one”). Morphemes are meaningful units, not words. 

(Notice I said “usually” phonemes don’t carry meaning—one exception is “a” which is a phoneme, morpheme, and a word!)

Some morphemes can stand alone in a language, and so they are called free morphemes. Some examples of free morphemes are “boy” and “art.” You cannot divide these words into smaller meaningful units. Some morphemes cannot stand alone, and need to be attached to other morphemes, and so they are called bound morphemes. Examples of bound morphemes are suffixes and prefixes, such as “un-” and “-ist” and “-er.”

Some languages have words that are mainly made up of just one morpheme (like Chinese and Vietnamese), while other languages use many morphemes (like Inuit languages).

Language structure phonology morphology syntax Image of the word "language" made up of flags from around the world.

Syntax

Syntax is the study of how morphemes are arranged into sentences. For example, in English, you could say, “Jerry walked the dog.” It wouldn’t make sense to say, “Walked dog Jerry the.” There is a certain arrangement of the words making up the sentence. English speakers expect to have the subject first, then the verb, and then the object (this form is called SVO). So, there is a specific word order in English that makes sense. 

Other languages use different word order systems, such as VSO (verb-subject-object) and SOV (subject-object-verb). For example, in English you would say, “The girl ate the banana,” but in Arabic, you would say, “Ate the girl the banana” (VSO form), and in Quechua, you would say, “The girl the banana ate” (SOV form).
And some languages don’t rely on word order at all. For example, in Warlpiri, the word order does not create meaning as it does in English. Instead, there is a suffix (something attached to the end of a word) that indicates the word is the subject of the sentence. And in Japanese, word endings are used to show which word is the subject and which word is the object. So different languages create sentences in different ways. 

The rules stating how to create words from morphemes and combine words into sentences are called grammar. So, grammar is the rules for the structure of language–the morphology and syntax. 

Language structure phonology morphology syntax. Image of pad of paper with pen and headphones on top of flags of the world.

Learn More

So, why do we care about language and phonology and morphology and syntax? One reason is that these concepts allow a Linguistic Anthropologist to record an endangered language. Then, efforts can be made to revitalize the language.

Another application of language and phonology, morphology, and syntax is with Forensic Linguistics. This is when Anthropologists use evidence from speech and writing in legal situations. For example, immigration officials may have a Linguistic Anthropologist study the accent and slang of asylum seekers to see if they are really from the country they claim to be from. 

And, linguistics can be important in criminal investigations. For example, one killer left a ransom note that mentioned a “devil’s strip.” The only place in the USA that uses this term is Akron, Ohio—it means the small strip of grass between a sidewalk and a street. So, this narrowed down the suspect list and the killer was identified.

Want to learn more about language, and phonology, morphology, and syntax? Check out the Language chapter of the free textbook, Perspectives: An Open Invitation to Cultural Anthropology

Thanks for reading!