I'd like to know whether there're truly bound trisyllabic morphemes in mandarin Chinese.

Thank you so much in advance.

  • Please capitalize the word Chinese in your topic.
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 15:14
  • There are lots, but AFAIK, they're all phonetic borrowings from other languages (not necessarily recent borrowings). Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 15:32
  • @StumpyJoePete any examples will be welcomed
    – GJC
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 16:01
  • @user-487 你提出的例子都是多语素词;楼主要的是单语素词。 Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 6:29
  • @GJC Can you clarify whether you're looking for just trisyllabic morphemes, or whether they need to be "bound" (e.g., a trisyllabic suffix or something that can't stand on its own)? I initially understood the question as being about the former, as that's already quite rare (afaik, limited to phonetic loans). Commented Nov 17, 2016 at 6:32

3 Answers 3


I know from experience that linguists and grammarians absolutely refuse to define the terms they use adequately in order to build their own cloud castles.

Given the definition:

morpheme: a speech element having a meaning or grammatical function that cannot be subdivided into further such elements


morpheme: "smallest meaningful unit in a language," 1896, from German morpheme, coined 1895 by Polish-born linguist Jan Baudouin de Courtenay (1845-1929), from Greek morphe "form, shape"

isn't a bound morpheme a contradiction in terms, since it cannot stand alone? Better to use the word 'affix', because that is what is meant.

If you then say: "But a meaningless morpheme may still have a grammatical function." then any letter is a morpheme, since, if I remove, say, 'o' from 'morpheme' I get 'mrpheme'. Therefore, 'o' has the grammatical function of making 'mrpheme' an interpretable collection of letters. Thus the smallest morpheme in English is a letter and smaller than a letter you cannot write.

In another thread someone complained about the arrogant insistence that Western grammatical concepts must also be applicable to Chinese. I wholeheartedly agree. Most, if not all, of the precepts of Western Grammar have no scientific definition, but people talk about them as if they were scientific facts which must also be true in Chinese. Can you define 'word' or 'subject' or 'sentence' rigorously? You know what you mean until I ask you to make your definition unequivocal.

Consider the Chinese word: 轿车。

轿jiao4 has 2 or 3 syllables, depending on your point of view.

轿 is made up of: 车 + 乔 ( 夭 + 儿) in Simplified Chinese or 车 + 夭 + 高 in Traditional Chinese.

We could argue 高 is not a morpheme, but I would accept it as such, as a picture of a tall building.

Tang Ho mentioned 们, but this is 人 + 门, so it is not elemental.

I would therefore agree with Tang Ho that Chinese has no bound trisyllabic morphemes and go further and say that neither does English. English has letters and Chinese has Primitives.


Bound morphemes are very rare in chinese just because most characters have meanings on their own, and more so with bound trisyllabic morphemes, but I don't think there is none.

Consider the following examples:

阿姨們 - 阿 nickname prefix, 姨 auntie, 們 plural suffix

丫頭子們 - 丫頭 little girl (pejorative), 子 nominal suffix, 們 plural suffix

A couple of bound pre/suffix on top of my head: 第, 頭, 兒, 們, 子, you can probably come up with more bound morphemes with these.

Although I am not 100% sure what the proper definition of bound morphemes for Chinese is, as I haven't taken any formal Chinese literature courses after secondary school in HK, this is all I can think of for now.

  • free/bound morpheme 自由/粘着语素, there are plenty of bound morphemes, cf. baike.baidu.com/view/73035.htm 不能单独成词成句的语素(如“历”、“语”、“视”等),但能作为构词成份与其他语素组合成词。
    – user6065
    Commented Nov 18, 2016 at 2:29

Bound trisyllabic morphemes? Like " wonders" or "importing"? Those kind of three syllables words in Chinese are mostly transliterated to two syllables word like 奇蹟,輸入.

There are still many three syllables compound words though :

非正式 (unofficial)
候選人 (candidate)

But they are all FREE morphemes because almost all Chinese characters have meanings of its own.

I think some markers like "們" and some final particles like "嗎" are bound morphemes as in 士兵們,你好嗎? Nevertheless, 士兵 and 你好 are free morphemes.

I would say there's no true bound trisyllabic morphemes in Chinese.

Would you accept loaned words like 凡士林(Vaseline)? all characters in 凡士林 has its own meaning, but in 凡士林, all three characters must be used together in exact order to form one meaningful word.

  • 凡士林 should be added to at least another morpheme, thereby creating a word. Any example(s)?
    – GJC
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 16:01
  • I don't understand your question. 凡士林 is a noun (name) that's made up of loaned characters. It is a brand name turned into a general term for petrolatum
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 16:23
  • 凡士林 is a word, with meaning on its own, which does not need to be joined to another morpheme.
    – GJC
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 16:26
  • It is not accepted as a bound trisyllabic morphemes then
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 16:29
  • It seems morphemes(语素)which are not words (词) are called bound morphemes, while those which also are words are called unbound or free. According to e.g."实用现代汉语语法"民 is a bound morpheme,...而"人民"中的"民"就不是一个词,因为它不能单独进入句子,必须与"人"、"公"、"居"等语素结合成"人民"、"公民"、"居民"等,才能进入句子。The fact that almost all Chinese Characters have meanings of their own does not mean that they are free morphemes.
    – user6065
    Commented Nov 16, 2016 at 20:29

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