Specializations > Typology and Descriptive Linguistics

Are there any completely analytic or completely synthetic languages?


for instance, are there any languages that don't use any particles or prepositions? Or any languages that don't alter words for any reason? I know Finnish and Mandarin come close, but I don't think they're completely analytic or synthetic.

Nobody knows what an "analytic" versus a "synthetic" language is, so the notion of purity or absoluteness doesn't mean anything. Approximately, an analytic language doesn't have much inflectional morphology. This is distinct from a so-called isolating language in that if there is zero inflection, it's isolating. So if a language is "completely" analytic, it isn't analytic anymore, it is isolating.

"Synthetic" language tend to have lots of morphology, which includes not only Russian but also Greenlandic. To be "absolutely" synthetic, the language would have to only have 1-word utterances, where that one word includes everything that you wanted to say. I would say that Finnish is more in the middle in the reach for syntheticity. Subjects, verbs and objects are separate words, adjectives and adverbs are separate words, they do use modal verbs, verb negation is a two-word construction etc. (In Bantu, negation of the verb is typically part of the verb's morphology). As for Mandarin, maybe it, or Vietnamese have the least morphology.

One of the biggest problems with these concepts is that they depends on having clear means of identifying words versus word-sequences.

The terminology of morphological linguisitic typology is not used consistently. I think it helps to distinguish two distinct but connected continua. One is how words are formed and at one end you have isolating and the other affixing. The other is how sentences are formed and at one end you have analytic and the other synthetic  - continuing if you wish to polysynthetic.

Without going into what a word is, a word consists of one or more morphemes. Morphemes are either free or bound. A free morpheme carries the meaning of a word. A bound morpheme is either inflectional, and changes the grammatical category of a word, or derivational and changes the meaning or part of speech.

In unfastened, fasten is a free morpheme, un- is a derivational morpheme (it reverses the meaning of fasten) and -ed is an inflectional morpheme (it changes the verb to the past tense). In fastener -er is a derivational morpheme (it converts a verb to a noun.)

An isolating language is a language which has a low ratio of morphemes to words. A completely isolating language would have no bound morphemes and no compound words (that is words with two or more free morphemes).

A completely affixing language has to be difficult to imagine because there are so many possibilities. When you think of all the different things that affixes do in the world’s languages no language could stand having all of them.

Since there are two types of bound morpheme there is the possibility of having a language with only inflectional morphemes and one with only derivational morphemes. (This is relevant when considering how analytic/synthetic a language is.) In practice languages tend to have both, though in different proportions.

An analytic language is one where how the words relate to each other is governed by word order and prepositions and similar words and (incidentally) meaning is often left to context. A synthetic language is one where how the words relate to each is governed by making changes to the words.

Since a synthetic language involves making changes to words it has to follow that it cannot be at the isolating end of the isolating/affixing continuum.

However, whilst a completely isolating language must be analytic, it does not following that a completely analytic language is isolating. That is because a language may be devoid of inflectional morphemes, but employ derivational morphemes and/or compound words.

A completely analytic language would be one without inflectional morphemes. A completely synthetic language, like a completely affixing language, is difficult to conceive as it would be too complex.

In practice languages do not fit into neat categories. In some languages the concept of a word starts to break down. In others, changes may be made to words not by affixes but by internal modification such as run/ran and that does not fit neatly into the isolating/affixing continuum.

English is highly analytic as it employs few inflectional affixes and uses word order and prepositions to convey meaning. It cannot be classed as highly isolating because it makes significant use of derivational affixes and compound words. It does though have isolating tendencies because nouns can become verbs and vice versa without the use of derivational affixes (though of course inflectional affixes are still needed according to the part of speech).


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