A synthetic language uses inflection or agglutination to express syntactic relationships within a sentence. Inflection is the addition of morphemes to a root word that assigns grammatical property to that word, while agglutination is the combination of two or more morphemes into one word. The information added by morphemes can include indications of a word's grammatical category, such as whether a word is the subject or object in the sentence. Morphology can be either relational or derivational.
While derivational morpheme changes the lexical categories of words, inflectional morpheme does not. In the first example below, faster remained an adjective when followed by the suffix; however, teacher becomes a noun after the suffix is added. Therefore, the first case is an example of inflection and the latter derivation.
- fast (adjective, positive) vs. faster (adjective, comparative)
- teach (verb) vs. teacher (noun)
In synthetic languages, there is a higher morpheme-to-word ratio than in analytic languages. Analytic languages have a lower morpheme-to-word ratio and higher use of helping verbs and word order. The four subtypes of synthetic languages are agglutinating languages, fusional languages, polysynthetic languages, and oligosynthetic languages.
Forms of synthesis
Language exhibits synthesis in two ways: derivational and relational morphology. These methods of synthesis refer to the ways in which morphemes, the smallest grammatical unit in a language, are bound together. Derivational and relational morphology represent opposite ends of a spectrum; that is, a single word in a given language may exhibit varying degrees of both of them simultaneously. Similarly, some words may have derivational morphology while others have relational morphology. Some linguists, however, consider relational morphology to be a type of derivational morphology, which may complicate the classification.
In derivational synthesis, morphemes of different types (nouns, verbs, affixes, etc.) are joined to create new words. That is, in general, the morphemes being combined are more concrete units of meaning. The morphemes being synthesized in the following examples either belong to a particular grammatical class – such as adjectives, nouns, or prepositions – or are affixes that usually have a single form and meaning:
- Aufsichts + Rats + Mitglieder + Versammlung
- "supervision + council + members + assembly"
- "Meeting of members of the supervisory board"
- This word actually contains words of derivational synthesis within it. Mitglieder, meaning "member", is a compound of mit + glied, as in "with + link [of chain]". Similarly, Versammlung is a compound of ver- + sammeln + -ung, or "[state of] + to gather + -ing", with both "ver-" and "-ung" being bound morphemes.
- 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).
- അങ്ങനെയല്ലാതായിരിക്കുമ്പോളൊക്കെത്തന്നെ (aṅṅaneyallātāyirikkumpēāḷeākkettanne)
- "such/so + not + has + been + when + occasions + all + exclusively"
- "on all such occasions when it has been not so"
- അങ്ങനെയല്ലാതായിരിക്കുമ്പോളൊക്കെത്തന്നെ (aṅṅaneyallātāyirikkumpēāḷeākkettanne)
- international classical compounds based on Greek and Latin
- hypercholesterolemia (υπερχοληστερολαιμία)
In relational synthesis, root words are joined to bound morphemes to show grammatical function. In other words, it involves the combination of more abstract units of meaning than derivational synthesis. In the following examples note that many of the morphemes are related to voice (e.g. passive voice), whether a word is in the subject or object of the sentence, possession, plurality, or other abstract distinctions in a language:
- "give + to me + it[singular] + you[plural] + [imperative mood]"
- 'You, give it to me'
- Afyonkarahisarlılaştıramayabileceklerimizden misiniz?
- Afyonkarahisar + -lı + laş + tıra + -ma + ya + bil + -ecek + -ler + -imiz + -den + misiniz?
- "Afyonkarahisar + citizen of + transform + [passive] + not + be able + [future tense] + [plural] + we + among + [you-plural-future-question]?"
- "Are you[plural] amongst the ones whom we might not be able to make citizens of Afyonkarahisar?"
- Afyonkarahisarlılaştıramayabileceklerimizden misiniz?
- გადმოგჳახტუნებინებდნენო (gadmogwaxṭunebinebdneno)
- The word describes the whole sentence that incorporates tense, subject, object, relation between them, direction of the action, conditional and causative markers etc.
Types of synthetic languages
Agglutinating languages have a high rate of agglutination in their words and sentences, meaning that the morphological construction of words consists of distinct morphemes that usually carry a single unique meaning. These morphemes always look the same no matter what word they are in, so it is easy to separate a word into its individual morphemes. Note that morphemes may be bound (that is, they must be attached to a word to have meaning, like affixes) or free (they can stand alone and still have meaning).
- Swahili is an agglutinating language. For example, distinct morphemes are used in the conjugation of verbs:
- Ni-na-soma: I-present-read or I am reading
- U-na-soma: you-present-read or you are reading
- A-na-soma: s/he-present-read or s/he is reading
Fusional languages are similar to agglutinating languages in that they involve the combination of many distinct morphemes. However, morphemes in fusional languages are often assigned several different lexical meanings, and they tend to be fused together so that it is difficult to separate individual morphemes from one another.
Polysynthetic languages are considered the most synthetic of the three types because they combine multiple stems as well as other morphemes into a single continuous word. These languages often turn nouns into verbs. Many Native Alaskan and other Native American languages are polysynthetic.
- 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.
Synthetic and analytic languages
Synthetic languages combine (synthesize) multiple concepts into each word. Analytic languages break up (analyze) concepts into separate words. These classifications comprise two ends of a spectrum along which different languages can be classified. The present-day-English is seen as analytic, but it used to be fusional. Certain synthetic qualities (as in the inflection of verbs to show tense) were retained.
The distinction is, therefore, a matter of degree. The most analytic languages consistently have one morpheme per word, while at the other extreme, in polysynthetic languages such as some Native American languages  a single inflected verb may contain as much information as an entire English sentence.
In order to demonstrate the nature of the analytic–synthetic–polysynthetic classification as a "continuum", 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.
|Literal translation||tomorrow day||I||of||friend friend||will||for||I||do||birth day||egg cake|
|"Tomorrow my friend(s) 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, even simple Chinese words such as míngtiān 'tomorrow' (míng "bright" + tīan "day") and péngyou 'friend' (a compound of péng and yǒu, both of which mean 'friend') are synthetic compound words. This is of interest for reconstruction of hypothesized nostratic and proto-world languages.
The Chinese language of the Classic works, and of Confucius for example, is more strictly monosyllabic (and southern dialects to a certain extent): each character represents one word. The evolution of modern Mandarin Chinese was accompanied by a reduction in the total number of phonemes. Words which previously were phonetically distinct became homophones. Many disyllabic words in modern Mandarin are the result of joining two related words (such as péngyou, literally "friend-friend") in order to resolve the phonetic ambiguity. A similar process is observed in some English dialects. For instance, in the Southern dialects of American English, it is not unusual for the short vowel sounds ĕ and i to be indistinguishable before nasal consonants: thus the words "pen" and "pin" are homophones (see pin-pen merger). In these dialects, the ambiguity is often resolved by using the compounds "ink-pen" and "stick-pin", in order to clarify which "p*n" is being discussed.
- "He travelled by hovercraft on the sea" is largely isolating, but travelled (although it is 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 synthesis (a special case of derivation with another free morpheme instead of a bound one).
- 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, "To us, these photos of a child crying are things that are difficult to be shown," meaning 'We cannot bear being shown these photos of a child crying' in more idiomatic English. In the example, most words have more than one morpheme and some have up to five.
- Käyttäytyessään tottelemattomasti oppilas saa jälki-istuntoa
- "Should they behave in an insubordinate manner, the student will get detention."
- Structurally: behaviour (present/future tense) (of their) 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'.
- gadmogvakhtunebinebdneno (gad-mo-gw-a-xtun-eb-in-eb-d-nen-o)
- '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-ku-mū-hu ʻabath-an)
- "And did we give it (masc.) to you futilely?" in Arabic, each word consists of one root that has a basic meaning (aʻṭā 'give' and ʻabath 'futile'). Prefixes and suffixes are added to make the word incorporate subject, direct and indirect objects, number, gender, definiteness, etc.
Increase in analyticity
Haspelmath and Michaelis observed that analyticity is increasing in a number of European languages. In the German example, the first phrase makes use of inflection, but the second phrase uses a preposition. The development of preposition suggests the moving from synthetic to analytic.
- des Hauses (the GEN.SG house GEN.SG) ‘the house's’
- von dem Haus (of the DAT.SG house DAT.SG) ‘of the house’
It has been argued that analytic grammatical structures are easier for adults learning a foreign language. Consequently, a larger proportion of non-native speakers learning a language over the course of its historical development may lead to a simpler morphology, as the preferences of adult learners get passed on to second generation native speakers. This is especially noticeable in the grammar of Creole languages. A 2010 paper in PLOS ONE suggests that evidence for this hypothesis can be seen in correlations between morphological complexity and factors such as the number of speakers of a language, geographic spread, and the degree of inter-linguistic contact.
- Dawson, Hope C.; Phelan, Michael, eds. (2016). Language Files (12 ed.). Ohio State University. pp. 172–175.
- Dawson, Hope C.; Phelan, Michael, eds. (2016). Language Files (12 ed.). Ohio State University. p. 156.
- Sapir, Edward. "Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech". Retrieved 9 December 2018.
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- "Fusional Language". Glossary of Linguistic Terms. 2015-12-04. Retrieved 9 December 2018.
- Ellos, William J (1982). "Benjamin Lee Whorf and Ultimate Reality and Meaning". Ultimate Reality and Meaning. 5 (2): 140–150. doi:10.3138/uram.5.2.140.
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- Haspelmath, M, & Michaelis, S. M. (2017). Analytic and synthetic. In Language Variation-European Perspectives VI: Selected papers from the Eighth International Conference on Language Variation in Europe (ICLaVE 8), Leipzig 2015. John Benjamins Publishing Company.
- Lupyan, Gary; Dale, Rick; O'Rourke, Dennis (20 January 2010). "Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure". PLoS ONE. 5 (1): e8559. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008559.
- 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
- "Linguistic typology" (PDF). (275 KiB), chapter 4 of Halvor Eifring & Rolf Theil: Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languages