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Italian Morphology

From Michael San Filippo,
Your Guide to Italian Language.

Language Transformers That Train Your Brain
While phonology concentrates on the musical building blocks of language, morphology (morfologia) is the study of the rules that govern how these blocks are put together. Sergio Scalise, in his book Morphologia, gives three practically identical definitions which basically state that morphology is the study of rules that govern the internal structure of words in their formation and alteration.

Let us refer back to the conjugations for the verb parlare in our introduction to Italian linguistics, which were used as an example of how words alter linguistically.

In this instance, morphological rules changed the verb for each person (the subject of the verb, such as I of "I talk" or io of "io parlo"): parlo, parli, parla, parliamo, parlate, parlano. Though verb conjugations are more overtly apparent in Italian, they are not as clear in English because English is a very morphologically poor language. Take the same verb in English: I talk, you talk, he/she talks, we talk, they talk. Only one verb form is different. The uniformity of English verbs is even more pronounced in the past tense where all forms look the same: talked. As a result, English relies heavily upon the rules governing word order in a sentence. Such rules are studied by syntax.

During our discussion of Italian phonology, I mentioned that the topic of defining a word has become a puzzling enigma. Printed words are easily distinguished because of the spaces between them. However, trying to use phonological cues—for instance which parts of a sentence are stressed or where the speaker pauses for breath—would fall short of a complete definition. If a native were to say to you "in bocca al lupo" (an Italian proverb meaning good luck), it would probably come out sounding like "nboccalupo" with no way of determining where a word ends and another begins. In addition, the meaning of the word "lupo" (wolf) has nothing to do with "good luck," so it is impossible to divide the phrase into meaningful parts in order to identify each word.

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Morphology complicates the matter. The example of "in bocca al lupo" raises two problems with classifying words: how to classify completely unrelated meanings of one word and how to classify many words with the same meaning, such as each of the numerous conjugations of verbs. Should each variation—such as parlo, parlerò, parlerebbe—be counted as a separate word or as variations of one word? Would conjugations such as ho parlato or avrò parlato count as two words or as one? These questions are morphological because they deal directly with the formation and alteration of words. So how do we resolve these issues? The simple answer is that there is no simple answer. Instead, linguists have recognized a specialized filing system called a lexicon.

The lexicon is the dictionary of the mind. However, this dictionary is more complex than Merriam-Webster, Oxford, and Cambridge combined. Think of it like a large collection of spider webs that are all interconnected. At the center of each lies a word or a morpheme (part of a word which carries meaning, such as –tion in English or –zione in Italian). So, for example, the lexicon of an Italian would contain the word "lupo" and would have recorded in the surrounding spider web information such as the primary meaning (predatory wild canine beast), its meaning within the idiom "in bocca al lupo," as well as its grammatical status (that it is a noun). Also in the lexicon would be the ending –zione and between these two entries, the lexicon would have the bit of information that understands that combining the two to form lupozione is not possible in Italian.

As you progress in Italian, you are constructing and morphologically training an Italian lexicon to recognize words and what they mean, as well as which constructions are possible and which are not. By understanding the properties of a word, you can take shortcuts such as just remembering parl- and its various mutations, instead of trying to remember each conjugation as a separate word. It saves storage space in your mind.

About the Author: Britten Milliman is a native of Rockland County, New York, whose interest in foreign languages began at age three, when her cousin introduced her to Spanish. Her interest in linguistics and languages from around the globe runs deep but Italian and the people who speak it hold a special place in her heart.

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