Saturday, May 11, 2013

Intro to Linguistics: Morphological Typology

Several weeks ago we gave you an introduction to morphology, the study of word formation and structure. Today we'll be looking at morphological typology, a system for classifying the world's languages based on how their morphemes are used. We'll begin by describing the two main morphological types: analytic languages and synthetic languages.

This cat is preparing its pen so it can
do some typological analysis with us.
Analytic Languages

These are also known as isolating languages because they're composed of isolated, or free, morphemes. Free morphemes can be words on their own, such as cat or happy. Languages that are purely analytic in structure don't use any prefixes or suffixes, ever. However, it's rare to find a language that is purely analytic or synthetic since most languages have characteristics of both. Morphological typology is like a spectrum in which languages fit in somewhere from analytic to polysynthetic (a subtype of synthetic languages we'll get to in a moment).

Mandarin Chinese and Vietnamese are good examples of analytic languages. The logographic writing systems of many languages used in Asia undoubtedly contribute to their analytic nature, since each symbol they write represents an entire word. English, on the other hand, is one of the most analytic Indo-European languages, but is still usually classified as a synthetic language.

Synthetic Languages

You've probably already guessed that synthetic languages differ from analytic languages because they do use affixes, also known as bound morphemes. There are three subtypes of synthetic languages which we'll now briefly describe.

Agglutination doesn't have anything to do with gluttony.
Agglutinating Languages: With these languages, morphemes within words are usually clearly recognizable in a way that makes it easy to tell where the morpheme boundaries are. Their affixes usually only have a single meaning. Turkish, Korean, Hungarian, Japanese, and Finnish are all in this group.

Fusional Languages: Similar to agglutinating languages, except that the morpheme boundaries are much more difficult to discern. Affixes are often fused with the stems, and can have multiple meanings. A prime example of a fusional language is Spanish, especially when it comes to verbs. In the word hablo "I speak", the -o morpheme tells us that we're dealing with a subject that is singular, first person, and in the present tense. It's difficult to find a morpheme that means "speak", however, since habl- is not a morpheme. Fusional languages can be tricky!

Polysynthetic Languages: These languages are undoubtedly some of the most difficult to learn. They often have verbs that can express the entirety of a typical sentence in English, which they do by incorporating nouns into verbs forms. For example, the Sora language of India has one word that means "I will catch a tiger". Many Native American languages are polysynthetic.