Derivational morphology: what is it? And so what?

In the proposed new GCSE, students will be expected to be able to use certain morphological patterns to understand words grammatically related to ones they already know. Specifically, using French as an example, it says that students will be expected to know:

  1. Adverbs: ending in –ment or –ement only where the English equivalent is -ly
  2. Adjectives: starting in in- only where the English equivalent is ‘un-’, or meaning ‘opposite of’
  3. Verbs: starting in dé- only where the English equivalent is ‘de-’ or meaning ‘not’

Words which follow these patterns will not need to be listed on the vocabulary list. This means that if “libre” is on the list, students will be expected to know “librement“. Ditto, if “efficace” is on the list, they will need to know “ineffecicace”. If “limiter” is on the list, they will be expected to know délimiter.

What does this mean in practice?

Firstly it has implications for the word count. Higher tier students will be expected to know 1700 words; but in reality, 300 of these will be ‘grammatical words’, i.e. words on the list because of the grammatical requirements, such as irregular forms of verbs. But, if you include the words expected to be known via “derivational morphology” along the lines above, that opens up another 200 words or so. About 170 of these words will be adverbs of the -ment/-ement variety. Of course not all of these will end up in the final exam board list: Exam boards need to select about 950/1400 words from the top 2000, and that means they won’t be including all of the adjectives from which you can form adverbs. They might select 100 or so of those 200 adjectives. This would mean the overall target vocabulary size will be something like: 1700, minus 300, plus 100 = 1500. Very small.

Are there any issues?

It will be slightly odd that 100 or so of the students’ words – more than 10% in most cases – will just be adverb variants of adjectives they know. This doesn’t give them much new to say, so the vocabulary might be argued to be somewhat unbalanced. But there is another problem – and namely that the two of the three ‘derivational morphology’ rules required don’t really make any sense when students are learning so few rules in the first place. Let me explain.

Adjectives: starting in- only where the English equivalent is ‘un-’, or meaning ‘opposite of’

By my rough calculations, there are about 20 words in the top 2000 where you can add ‘in-‘ and get a negated version of the adjective in French. Examples would be actif/inactif; capable/incapable; volontaire/involontaire.

But there are somewhat more numerous examples where of words where the -in rules does not work when limited to words within the top 2000. Specifically it doesn’t work with…

  • words where we might expect it to work, because we can add un- in English, but where we can’t add in- in French, such as réel, naturel, commun, critique, complexe, étonnant, naturel, original (in English we can say unreal, unnatural, uncommon, uncritical, uncomplicated, unexpert, unsurprising, unnatural, unoriginal)
  • words where there is a negated form in French, but where it isn’t formed with in-, such as précis, réel, moral, parfait (these exist as imprécis, irréel, immoral, imparfait)

So while it is fine to teach this in+adjective = negated adjective rule as a rule for receptive understanding, it is highly risky to promote it as a rule for productive use. Because students will end up creating words which do not exist. Remember, in these proposals, the aim is that productive knowledge should be the same as receptive knowledge.

Verbs: starting dé- only where the English equivalent is ‘de-’ or meaning ‘not’

French has this pattern just like English does: construct/deconstruct. Though in English it sometimes turns into ‘dis-‘, such as apply/disapply. So how relevant is it to the top 2000 words?

As far as I can see, not very relevant at all. There are only a handful of top 2000 verbs where you can apply this rule, and they’re not exactly priority verbs for your average grade 3-5 student.

  • faire/faire
  • composter/composer
  • conseiller/conseiller
  • monter/monter
  • limiter/limiter
  • former/former
  • lier/lier
  • charger/charger
  • régler/régler

Of course the exam board has to select 50-70% of the top 2000 for its vocab list, so it’s possible that only three or four would end up on the final list. Yet the exam expects students to have learned this as a rule?

More worryingly, learning this as a rule in such early stages of language acquisition could actually be very risky. Because there is a long list of verbs in the top 2000 where you can add de-, but where the meaning is not “de” or “not”. I think these verbs where the rule doesn’t work outnumbers the verbs where it does work in the top 2000 by roughly 2 to 1. For example:

  • tenir / détenir (détenir does not mean “not hold”, it means “detain”)
  • porter / déporter (déporter does not mean “not carry” or “decarry”, it means “deport”
  • montrer / démontrer (etc)
  • noter / dénoter
  • compter / décompter
  • laisser / délaisser
  • poser / déposer
  • passer / dépasser
  • terminer / déterminer
  • finir / définir
  • penser / dépenser
  • priver / dépriver
  • figurer / défigurer
  • marcher / démarche (=noun)
  • céder / décéder
  • nier / dénier

Again this rule doesn’t really make sense as one to teach when students have only got a few hundred words under their belt, if that. There’s nothing wrong with pointing this out as patterns which can and might be helpful when understanding a text, but it’s something else entirely to include it as a “high frequency pattern of derivational morphology” when students know so few words: the patterns aren’t necessarily that high frequency at all, and at this stage, might well mislead them.

But it’s another example of the structuralist nature of these proposals: they represent a world view where languages are really about rules first, then words slot in. In reality, languages are about words first.

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