What is morphophonemic spelling?

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Morphophonemic spelling is the representation of the underlying form of the morpheme, irrespective of its different surface alternations. Each root or affix would have a “constant visual image.” The assumption is that the reader will recognize the word and will pronounce it automatically with the surface result of the morphophonological alternations.

Advantage and disadvantage of morphophonemic spelling

The consistent visual image of the morpheme aides the fluent reader who is inclined to recognize words as units rather than as individual phonemes.


Each morpheme is spelled in one consistent way but is pronounced differently, according to the influence of the phonological environment. The beginning reader who is inclined to rely heavily on the sound--symbol correlation may find morphophonemic spelling difficult to read.


In most languages, certain morphophonological processes take place between words or between roots and affixes within a word. Part of linguistic research is the analysis into underlying forms of roots and affixes which are affected by such processes. The basic allomorphs and their conditioned allomorphs need to be established. Certain roots and affixes may have more than one surface (phonemic) form, often phonologically conditioned.


In contrast, in a complete phonemic spelling, one would write each morpheme as it is pronounced phonemically. This means that roots and affixes may have more than one way of writing because of their allomorphs.


“Phonemic spelling helps the beginner but morphophonemic spelling helps the fluent reader. What we need to aim for in orthography development is an orthography which is sufficiently accurate phonemically so that the decoding is possible, but also one which keeps the meaning units in their basic form wherever possible” (Dawson 1978).


Here is an example from English contrasting morphophonemic and phonemic spelling:

  1. The plural morpheme in English is morphophonemically written |s|

    • cars [z]
    • cats [s]
    • cases [Iz]
  2. If the plural morpheme in English was written phonemically, it could look like this:

    • carz
    • cats
    • casiz

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Page content last modified: 25 January 1999

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