An agglutinative language is a type of synthetic language with morphology that primarily uses agglutination: words may contain different morphemes to determine their meaning, but each of these morphemes (including stems and affixes) remains in every aspect unchanged after their union, thus resulting in generally easier deducible word meanings if compared to fusional languages, which allow modifications in the phonetics and/or spelling of one or more morphemes within a word, generally for shortening the word on behalf of an easier pronunciation. The term was introduced by Wilhelm von Humboldt to classify languages from a morphological point of view. It is derived from the Latin verb agglutinare, which means "to glue together".
Non-agglutinative synthetic languages are fusional languages; morphologically, they combine affixes by "squeezing" them together, drastically changing them in the process, and joining several meanings in a single affix (for example, in the Spanish word comí "I ate", the suffix -í carries the meanings of first person, singular number, aorist tense. The term agglutinative is sometimes incorrectly used as a synonym for synthetic. Used in this way, the term embraces both fusional languages and inflected languages. The agglutinative and fusional languages are two ends of a continuum, with various languages falling more toward one or the other end. For example, Japanese is generally agglutinative, but displays fusion in otōto (弟 younger brother?), from oto+hito (originally oto+pito) and in its non-affixing verb conjugations. A synthetic language may use morphological agglutination combined with partial usage of fusional features, for example in its case system (e.g. German, Dutch, and Persian).
Agglutinative languages tend to have a high rate of affixes/morphemes per word, and to be very regular, in particular with very few irregular verbs. For example, Japanese has very few irregular verbs – only two are significantly irregular, and there are only about a dozen others with only minor irregularity; Ganda has only one (or two, depending on how "irregular" is defined); while in the Quechua languages all the ordinary verbs are regular. In Turkish, there is only one irregular noun and no irregular verbs other than copular and two existential particles. Korean has only ten irregular forms of conjugation. Georgian is an exception; it is highly agglutinative (with up to 8 morphemes per word), but it has a significant number of irregular verbs with varying degrees of irregularity.
Examples of agglutinative languages include:
- Algonquian languages, namely Cree and Blackfoot
- Japanese language
- Korean language
- Mongolic languages
- Tungusic languages
- Turkic languages
- Armenian language
- Athabaskan languages
- Austronesian languages
- Bantu languages (see Ganda)
- Dravidian languages, most prominent of which are Tamil, Kannada, Telugu, Malayalam and Tulu
- Eskimo–Aleut languages, namely Aleut, Inuktitut, and Yupik
- Igboid languages
- Kartvelian languages
- some Mesoamerican and native North American languages including Nahuatl, Huastec, and Salish
- Muskogean languages
- Northeast and Northwest Caucasian languages
- Berber languages
- Some assert that Persian language is the only Iranian language which is agglutinative
- many Uralic languages, namely Hungarian, Finnish and Sami languages
- Siouan languages, namely Lakota and Yuchi
- many Tibeto-Burman languages
- Quechua languages and Aymara
- Vasconic languages namely Basque, and the extinct Aquitanian
Many languages spoken by Ancient Near East peoples were agglutinative:
Agglutination is a typological feature and does not imply a linguistic relation, but there are some families of agglutinative languages. For example, the Proto-Uralic language, the ancestor of Uralic languages, was agglutinative, and most descended languages inherit this feature. But since agglutination can arise in languages that previously had a non-agglutinative typology and it can be lost in languages that previously were agglutinative, agglutination as a typological trait cannot be used as evidence of genetic relationship to other agglutinative languages. The uncertain theory about Ural-Altaic proffers that there is a genetic relationship with this proto-language. As seen in Finnish, in Mongolian and in Turkish.
Many languages have developed agglutination. This developmental phenomenon is known as language drift. There seems to exist a preferred evolutionary direction from agglutinative synthetic languages to fusional synthetic languages, and then to non-synthetic languages, which in their turn evolve into isolating languages and from there again into agglutinative synthetic languages. However, this is just a trend, and in itself a combination of the trend observable in Grammaticalization theory and that of general linguistic attrition, especially word-final apocope and elision.
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