Continuing in a vein of being clear, at least here, about what the intended meaning is of the building-block terms that we are using, let’s explore the meaning of three more key fundamental concepts and how we are using them.
How can we define the notion of a ‘word’? I take, perhaps, quite a simplistic position on the notion of a word. A word is what is seen within a language community as the smallest unit of independent meaning within a sentence.
Independence is of course a relative term, so let’s flesh out what is meant here by ‘independent’. But first, if we say ‘t’ we have no meaning conveyable; if we say ‘th’, again we have no meaning conveyable; but if we say ‘the’, we have something that has a meaning – very little meaning perhaps, but still meaning. In the, for example, we have unit of meaning. This unit is independent in that it can be placed with all kinds of other words like lion, car, orange, tortoise, idea to combine with them to create more meaning and to indicate that we are talking about something that we have introduced already as a topic or that we can see directly in front of us. The word the is independent in its specific potential for meaning and that potential is then delimited in some way by the word, or words, after it.
Often, a single word is potentially one of a number of words and the context (of words) helps us figure out which particular word it is: if we hear the word ‘will’, we know which word ‘will’ it is when we hear I will do it (where will = a verb, actually a modal verb used to talk about volition or futurity) or, when we hear where there is a will, there is a way (where will = a noun expressing determination). And that analytic grammatical information is part of what makes a word a word, not just its meaning, though the two are closely related.
So, we can develop our definition of a word to say: a word is what is seen within a language community as the smallest unit of independent meaning within a sentence and which has a default grammatical category (noun, verb, adjective etc). As we saw with the form will, when the meaning is different and the analytic grammar is different in two uses of the same form, then we have two words with the same form, not one word.
Inflections are changes that we can make to the form of a word. In English, we can change the singular to the plural by adding s or an irregular ending such as in children; we can make the present form of a verb past by adding ed or effecting an irregular form such as in saw or hid, or make it progressive by adding ing, or perfect by adding ed again or using an irregular form such as seen or hidden. These are all examples of inflections to express ideas within the analytic grammar. But, in the case of pronouns, in English, we can express synthetic grammar information, by when we inflect the subject pronoun I to the object pronoun me or to the genitive/possessive pronoun mine.
A morpheme is often equivalent to a word, such as with house, tree, anger, octopus, walk, sing, happy. A morpheme is equivalent to a word when the word has no inflection. If we put a plural inflection on house, then we have two morphemes: house and s ; if we use angry, again we have two morphemes: anger and y ; if we put a past inflection on walk, then we have two morphemes walk and ed; etc.