An agglutinative language is a type of synthetic language with morphology that primarily uses agglutination: words are formed by joining phonetically unchangeable affix morphemes to the stem. In agglutinative languages, each affix is a bound morpheme for one unit of meaning (such as "diminutive", "past tense", "plural", etc.), instead of morphological modifications with internal changes of the root of the word, or changes in stress or tone. In an agglutinative language stems do not change, affixes do not fuse with other affixes, and affixes do not change form conditioned by other affixes.
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 indicative mood, active voice, past tense, first person singular subject and perfective aspect).
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). 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); in Turkish and in the Quechua languages all the verbs are regular. Korean language 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
- Altaic languages
- Athabaskan languages, namely Navajo
- Austronesian languages
- Basque language
- Bantu languages (see Ganda)
- Dravidian languages, most prominent of which are Kannada, Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu 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
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.
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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