Take a Word.... MORPH: Etymology, Definitions, Uses, a Cartoon, Morphology & a Poem
Etymology of 'morph'
from Greek -morphos; from morphē shape
The Greek counterpart of Latin root word 'form' which meant ‘shape’, morph also means ‘shape', and it too has contributed important words to the English language.
as a noun, -morph
- a combining form meaning ‘form, structure’, of the kind specified by the initial element, e.g. isomorph - being of identical or similar form, shape, or structure; ectomorph - a person with a lean and delicate build of body; endomorph - a person with a soft round build of body and high proportion of fat tissue
- -morphy, combining form in noun: countable, e.g. stasimorphy -- deviation of form arising from arrest of growth.
- (adjective) -morphic, -morphous, combining form in adjective, e.g. dimorphic - occurring or existing in two different forms; "dimorphic crystals"; "dimorphous organisms"
as a verb
- of an image on a screen: to gradually change into a different image; to change gradually and completely from one thing into another thing usually in a way that is surprising or that seems magical
- short for metamorphose, hence:
metamorphosis (noun) - ‘a biological process by which an animal physically develops after birth or hatching, involving a conspicuous and relatively abrupt change in the animal's body structure through cell growth and differentiation, for example the wondrous metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly’.
Now we go from that sublime process to the ridiculous, but so entertaining; a cartoon!
Morph & Chas: Clay Cartoon Characters
I first came across the word ‘Morph’ when watching a programme called ‘Take Hart’ on television in the late 70s. Tony Hart was a gifted artist who produced amazing designs, doing hands-on projects, conjuring up paintings, drawings, collages, tiny and huge, with such dexterity that I found it magical. I was already in my 20s but I loved this comical character, loved art and loved this inspiring programme.
One section was a one minute ‘short’ starring ‘Morph’, a clay cartoon character who got up to all sorts and had various scrapes, uttering no words but many expressive sounds; go to this video to see the first episode:
Morph is portrayed in stop-motion animation. He is comic and appeared from 1977, in both ‘Take Hart’ and ‘Hartbeat’. He was created by Peter Lord and lived in a wooden microscope box on Tony Hart’s desk.
The series was made for the BBC by Aardman Animations, who later became famous for their ‘Wallace and Gromit’ series of films and other characters such as ‘Shaun the Sheep’. The Aardman studios are in Bristol, about 40 miles from where I live.
Tony Hart would talk to Morph who then replied in gobbledygook, though with meaningful intonation and gestures. Later on Morph was joined by another clay character, Chas, who was much more badly behaved.
As his name implies, Morph could change shape, becoming a sphere in order to move around, or changing to fit into various shapes and holes. He could mimic objects and creatures; fascinating, entertaining and so innovative.
Can humans morph? Let’s see!
A Lion Patronus or the Making of a Name
So you can Morph!
So you can morph! What can you do?
Are you a caterpillar who
becomes a beautiful flutterby?
Or can you be a spirit ghost
who adopts the mortal host?
What becomes of the wretch within?
Or are you one of Rowling’s lot,
a Metamorphmagus who’s got
ability to be this or that?
Maybe, not quite so clever though,
Animagus, which creature’s show
will betray your inner traits?
Much worse, a Boggart you could be,
morphing to fear of snake or tree.
Can I survive your evil will?
For certain, my Patronus power,
when morphed within a forest bower,
becomes a bright, translucent Lion.
Two names can morph, like Bridgwater;
a bridge on water is what it oughta
be, but wait and see the truth.
This bloke called Walter had a brigge,
a quayside for those ships a-rig;
Walter’s Brigge became Bridgwater!
Whatever morphing can disguise,
change shape to then deceive our eyes,
to me it is a wondrous thing
like nature’s merging into Spring.
art = are
dost = do
doth = does
'ere = before
hast = have
'tis = it is
'twas = it was
wast = were
whence = from where
wherefore = why
hence = from here
oft = often
yea = even
ay = yes
aught = anything
yon, yonder = that one there
would (he were) = I wish (he were)
marry = (a mild swear word)
nay = no
hie = hurry
Mankind & Language
Of course, mankind has morphed, gradually evolved over an incomprehensible amount of time. Then he started making mere noises with gestures. At some point, he was able to form tools and hunt. Along the way, throughout this process of physical change, language too has morphed, slowly but surely. It has evolved by undergoing changes in sound, changes in how it is represented on a page, changes in the way we use it.
You only have to look at old texts, some of which are, to the layman, incomprehensible. Then look at Shakespeare, some of which is not easy to understand either due to the spelling or due to words used in his time which are no longer current or which have changed beyond recognition.
The list to the right gives you a flavour.
Some of these are recognisable, some used, though perhaps more in the northern dialects of Britain, and some in more poetic writing.
'Landmarks' - Language defined by Place
Robert Macfarlane, in his book called 'Landmarks', neatly describes how language and place blend, metamorphose, live together:
‘Metamorphosis and shape-shifting, magnification, miniaturisation, cabinets of curiosity, crystallisation, hollows and dens, archives, wonder, views from above: these are among the images and tropes that recur. ..…all are fascinated by the same questions concerning the mutual relations of place, language and spirit - how we landmark, and how we are landmarked.’
French, Place Names & Spelling
Words morph in most languages. Take the French ‘du’ for example; it is used instead of ‘de le’, so those two words have merged and become a different one, whereas the two words ‘de la’ have survived intact.
We have place names like Edinburgh, Peterborough, Middlesbrough, Salisbury. The suffixes -borough -burgh -brough (often pronounced ‘bro’ or ‘buru’ (both ‘u’s short) or even ‘bre’ (the ‘e’ a short sound known as ‘schwa’, as in normal ‘the’)) and -bury, all mean ‘fortified enclosure’. Each has survived more in certain areas, such as ‘burgh’ being mainly Northumbrian and Scots, due to the use of the regional language. Each has morphed into similar, but definable, variations.
The word ‘rime’, the original spelling of ‘rhyme’ (which changed in the 17th century), is now used as a technical term, onset & rime, such as inset, beset; ‘in’ & ‘be’ are the onsets, set is the rime.
Words ‘evolve’ or morph depending on usage and accent, especially when they travel a long way. If we look at the word ‘schedule’, the spelling doesn’t change but the pronunciation does (‘shedule’ in Britain, ‘skedule’ in USA), so it might not be long before the spelling in the USA becomes ‘sk…’ Only time will tell.
The British spelling of 'centre' is the more phonetic 'center' in American; similarly theatre/theater. 'Humour' is 'humor', but the adjective is 'humorous' in both! Funny, eh?
In literacy, my line of teaching, we talk about morphology, the study of how words change by adding or taking away certain ‘chunks’ of letters, for example:
- take/taking; word/words; general/generality
The part of a word which can be added or taken away is a ‘morpheme’. As a suffix it can be as short as ’-s’ (dog/dogs) or as long as ‘-ation’ (explore/exploration), sometimes cutting a letter before adding the suffix. As a prefix it can be the one letter ‘a-’ (aside) or as long as ‘counter-‘ (countersign).
I am in the process of devising a system to help reading and writing for those who do not respond so well to the phonetic approach, or for use simply to reinforce spelling, to look at the way words are made and changed, adding or withdrawing, including games to make the process fun.
Take the word ‘con/nect' which has two chunks or syllables; we can then change it to connecting (add the suffix), disconnecting (add the prefix), disconnect (remove the suffix), back to connect (remove the prefix).
That process happens all the time in speech, without us realising it. It’s fun to take words apart, treat them like jigsaws and find out what you can do with them.
Keep an Eye Out!
Look closely at words! See if you can detect any 'morphs'. There are more about than you might think. They might be in the names of people or places around you. They might be in nicknames. Maybe you know some ancient words which have changed to become words in present-day use.
Use the words you find! Explore the construction, the morphological make-up of the words you use! Make up your own (my 4 year-old granddaughter does that all the time)! It all adds to the quality of your reading and thereby the richness of your writing.