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In linguistic typology, a synthetic language is a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio, as opposed to a low morpheme-per-word ratio in what is described as an isolating language. This linguistic classification is largely independent of morpheme-usage classifications (such as fusional, agglutinative, etc.), although there is a common tendency for agglutinative languages to exhibit synthetic properties.
Synthetic and isolating languages
Synthetic languages are frequently contrasted with isolating languages. It is more accurate to conceive of languages as existing on a continuum, with the isolating pole (consistently one morpheme per word) at one end and highly polysynthetic languages (in which a single inflected verb may contain as much information as an entire English sentence with various words such as a noun, an adjective, and an adverb) at the other extreme. Synthetic languages tend to lie around the middle of this scale.
Synthetic languages are numerous and well-attested. Most Indo-European languages, all Kartvelian languages such as Georgian, some Semitic languages such as Arabic, and many languages of the Americas, including Navajo, Nahuatl, Mohawk and Quechua are synthetic.
More specifically, this includes Indo-European languages of the Romance family (Latin, Italian, French, Romanian, Spanish etc.), of the Germanic family (German, Dutch language etc.), of the Slavic family (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Slovak, Serbo-Croatian etc.), of the Indoaryan family (Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian etc.) as well as Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Latvian and Lithuanian.
Forms of synthesis
There are several ways in which a language can exhibit synthetic characteristics:
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- German: Aufsichtsratsmitgliederversammlung => "Supervision + council + member + assembly" meaning "meeting of members of the supervisory board" ("with" and "link" (as in link of a chain) form a derivation that is the German word for "member"; similarly, "completion", "collect" and "noun" form a derivation that means "meeting", with both "ver-" and "-ung" being bound morphemes)
- Greek: προ-παρ-οξυ-τόν-ησις => "pre" + "next to" + "sharp" + "pitch/tone" + "tendency (suffix)", the tendency to accent on the proparoxytone position
- Polish: przystanek => "beside-stand-little" meaning "bus stop", "tram stop", or "rail halt"
- English: antidisestablishmentarianism => "against-ending-institutionalize-condition-advocate-ideology" meaning "the movement to prevent revoking the Church of England's status as the official church" (of England, Ireland, and Wales). English word chains such as child labour law may count as well, because it is merely an orthographic convention to write them as isolated words. Grammatically and phonetically they behave like one word (stress on the first syllable, plural morpheme at the end).
- Russian: достопримечательность (dostoprimechatel'nost') => "Deserving (intensifying prefix)-notable-(noun suffix)" meaning "place of interest"
- Malayalam: അങ്ങനെയല്ലാതായിരിക്കുമ്പോളൊക്കെത്തന്നെ ('angnganeyallaathaayirikkumpOLokkeththanne') => "such/so-not-has-been-when-occasions-all-exclusively" meaning "on all such occasions when it has been not so"
- international classical compounds based on Greek and Latin: hypercholesterolemia υπερχοληστερολαιμία => "overmuch/high + (bile + solid + -ol(e) (chemical suffix)) + blood + -ia (abstraction -in this case disease- feminine suffix)", i.e. the presence of high levels of cholesterol in the blood.
- Italian: comunic-ando-ve-le => "communicate-GERUND-you(plural)-those(feminine, plural)" meaning '(while or by) communicating those(feminine, plural) to you(plural)'
- Spanish: escrib-iéndo-me-lo => "write-GERUND-me-it(masculine/neuter)" 'writing it to me'
- Nahuatl: ō-c-ā-lti-zquiya => "PAST-3SG.OBJ-water-CAUS-IRREAL" meaning 'she would have bathed him'
- Latin: com-prim-unt-ur => "together-crush-they-PASSIVE" 'They are crushed together'
- Japanese: 見させられがたい (misaseraregatai) => "see-causative-passive-difficult" 'it's difficult to be shown (this)'
- Finnish: juoksentelisinkohan => "run-erratic motion-conditional-I-question-casual" 'I wonder if I should run around (aimlessly)'
- Hungarian: ház-a-i-tok-ban => in your houses, szeret-lek => I love you
- Turkish: Afyonkarahisarlılaştıramayabileceklerimizden misiniz? => "Afyonkarahisar-from/citizen of-transform-transformed into (makes the previous suffix passive)-not-be able-(future tense)-(plural)-we-among-(question)-are you?" meaning "Are you (all) amongst the ones whom we will not be able to make citizens of Afyonkarahisar?"
- Georgian: gadmogwakhtunebinebdneno (gad-mo-gw-a-xtun-eb-in-eb-d-nen-o) means "They said that they would be forced by them (the others) to make someone to jump over in this direction". The word describes the whole sentence that incorporates tense, subject, object, relation between them, direction of the action, conditional and causative markers etc.
Degrees of synthesis
In order to demonstrate the "continuum" nature of the isolating–synthetic–polysynthetic classification, some examples are shown below:
- Mandarin lacks inflectional morphology almost entirely, and most words consist of either one or two syllable morphemes, especially two due to the very numerous compound words. This makes it noticeably more isolating than many other languages, even slightly more so than English.
|"Tomorrow my friends will make a birthday cake for me."|
However, with rare exceptions, each syllable in Mandarin (corresponding to a single written character) represents a morpheme with an identifiable meaning, even if many of such morphemes are bound. This gives rise to the common misconception that Chinese consists exclusively of "words of one syllable". As the sentence above illustrates, however, Chinese words expressing even the simplest concepts—such as míngtiān 'tomorrow' (míng "bright" + tīan "day") and péngyou 'friend' (a compound of péng and yǒu, both of which mean 'friend')—are typically synthetic compound words.
- English: "He travelled by hovercraft on the sea." Largely isolating, but travelled (although also possible to say "did travel" instead) and hovercraft each have two morphemes per word, the former being an example of relational synthesis (inflection), and the latter of compounding (special case of derivation with another free morpheme instead of a bound one).
- Japanese: 私たちにとって、この泣く子供の写真は見せられがたいものです。(Watashitachi ni totte, kono naku kodomo no shashin wa miseraregatai mono desu) means strictly literally, "In our case, these pictures of children crying are things that are difficult to be shown," meaning 'We cannot bear being shown these pictures of children crying' in more idiomatic English. In the example, virtually every word has more than one morpheme and some have up to five.
- Finnish: Käyttäytyessään tottelemattomasti oppilas saa jälki-istuntoa means, "Should they behave in an insubordinate manner, the student will get detention." Structurally: behaviour (present/future tense) (of theirs) obey (without) (in the manner/style) studying (they who (should be)) gets detention (some). Practically every word is derived and/or inflected. However, this is quite formal language, and (especially in speech) would have various words replaced by more analytic structures: Kun oppilas käyttäytyy tottelemattomasti, hän saa jälki-istuntoa meaning 'When the student behaves in an insubordinate manner, they will get detention'.
- Georgian: gadmogvakhtunebinebdneno (gad-mo-gw-a-xtun-eb-in-eb-d-nen-o) means 'They said that they would be forced by them (the others) to make someone to jump over in this direction'. The word describes the whole sentence that incorporates tense, subject, direct and indirect objects, their plurality, relation between them, direction of the action, conditional and causative markers, etc.
- Classical Arabic: أوأعطيناكموه عبثًا؟ awaʼāʻṭaynākumūhu ʻabathan (a-wa-aʻṭay-nā-kum-ūh-u ʻabath-an) means "And did we give it (masc.) to you futilely?" in Arabic, each word consists of one root that has a basic meaning (aʻṭī 'give' and ʻabath 'futility'). Prefixes and suffixes are added to make the word incorporate subject, direct and indirect objects, their plurality, etc.
- Mohawk: Washakotya'tawitsherahetkvhta'se means "He ruined her dress" (strictly, 'He made the-thing-that-one-puts-on-one's body ugly for her'). This one inflected verb in a Polysynthetic language, expresses an idea that can only be conveyed using multiple words in a more analytic language such as English.
Oligosynthetic languages are a theoretical notion created by Benjamin Whorf with no known examples existing in natural languages. Such languages would be functionally synthetic, but make use of a very limited array of morphemes (perhaps just a few hundred). Whorf proposed that Nahuatl was oligosynthetic, but this has since been discounted by most linguists.
- Analytic language
- Isolating language
- Morphology (linguistics)
- Linguistic typology
- Bound morpheme
- SIL: What is a morphological process?
- SIL: What is derivation?
- SIL: Comparison of inflection and derivation
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Inflection, Derivation
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Base, Stem, Root
- PDF (275 KiB), chapter 9 of Halvor Eifring & Rolf Theil: Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languages