Isolating language

In morphological typology (in linguistics), an isolating language (also analytic language) is any language in which words are composed of a single morpheme. This is in contrast to a synthetic language which can have words composed of multiple morphemes.


Although historically languages were divided into three basic types (isolating, flectional, agglutinative), these traditional morphological types are best divided into two distinct parameters:

  1. morpheme-per-word ratio
  2. degree of fusion between morphemes

An isolating language can thus be defined as a language that has a one-to-one correspondence between word and morpheme. To illustrate, the English word-form


is a single word (namely boy) consisting of only a single morpheme (also boy). This word-form would then have a 1:1 morpheme-word ratio. The English word-form


is a single word-form consisting of three morphemes (namely, anti-, govern, -ment). This word-form would then have a 3:1 morpheme-word ratio.

Languages that are considered to be isolating have a tendency for all words to have a 1:1 morpheme-word ratio. Because of this tendency, these languages are said to "lack morphology" since every word would not have an internal compositional structure in terms of word pieces (i.e. morphemes) — thus they would also lack bound morphemes like affixes. Isolating languages use independent words while synthetic languages tend to use affixes and internal modifications of roots for the same purpose.

The morpheme-per-word ratio should be thought of as a scalar category ranging from low morpheme-per-word ratio (near 1.0) on the isolating pole of the scale to a high morpheme-per-word ratio on the other pole. Languages with a tendency to have morpheme-per-word ratios greater than 1.0 are termed synthetic. The flectional (or fusional) and agglutinative types of the traditional typology can then be considered subtypes of synthetic languages which are distinguished from each other according to the second degree-of-fusion parameter.

Isolating language are especially common in Southeast Asia, and examples are Vietnamese and classical Chinese (as distinct from modern Chinese languages). Outside China, the majority of mainland Southeast Asian languages are isolating languages with the exception of Malay. Mainland Southeast Asia is home to much of eastern Asia's analytic language families including Tibeto-Burman, Tai-Kadai, Hmong-Mien and Mon-Khmer. Even some Austronesian languages in the region, such as Cham, are more isolating than the rest of their respective family. Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Lao and Vietnamese are all major isolating languages spoken in mainland southeast Asia.


Since words are not marked by morphology showing their role in the sentence, word order tends to carry a lot of importance in isolating languages. For example, Chinese makes use of word order to show subject–object relationships. Chinese (of all varieties) is perhaps the best-known analytic language. To illustrate:

明天 朋友 生日 蛋糕
明天 朋友 生日 蛋糕
míngtīan de péngyou huì wèi zuò ge shēngri dàn'gāo
tomorrow me (subordinating particle) friend will for me make one (classifier) birthday cake
"Tomorrow my friends will make a birthday cake for me."
会 (huì) is stronger alternative to 将 (jiāng), both words mean "will". The proper translation in English should either be spoken with an emphasis on the word "will" or be changed to a stronger construct such as going-to future.

As can be seen, comparing the Chinese sentence to the English translation, while English is fairly isolating, it contains synthetic features, such as the bound morpheme -s (a suffix) to mark plurality.

Similarly, in Burmese, whose word order is subject-object-verb, sentence constructs are isolating.

မနက်ဖြန် ကျွန်တော်1 ရဲ့ သူငယ်ချင်း မွေးနေ့ ကိတ်မုန့် တစ် ဗန်း ဖုတ် ပေး မည်။2
ma ne' hpyan
kya no
tha nge chin:
mwei: nei.
keiʔ mo̰ʊ̃
kei' moun.

tomorrow me (subordinating particle) friend birthday cake one (classifier) bake give (future tense particle)
"Tomorrow my friends will make a birthday cake for me."
1 Pronoun generally used for males
2 Literary form. Colloquial form uses မယ်.

zuò ("do") remains the same in the present tense:

"They are doing homework."
他們 作業
他们 作业
tāmen zài zuò zuòyè
they are doing homework.

Analytic languages

The term analytic referring a morphological type is synonymous with the term isolating in most contexts. However, it is possible to define analytic as referring to the expression of syntactic information via separate grammatical words instead of via morphology (with bound morphemes). Obviously, using separate words to express syntactic relationships would lead to a more isolating tendency while using inflectional morphology would lead to the language having a more synthetic tendency.

By definition, all isolating languages would also be analytic (in the sense defined in this section). However, it is possible that a language may have virtually no inflectional morphology but have a larger number of derivational affixes. For example, Indonesian has only two inflectional affixes but about 25 derivational morphemes. Indonesian can be considered slightly synthetic (and thus not isolating) and, in terms of the expression of syntactic information, mostly analytic.

See also


  • Sapir, Edward. (1921). Types of linguistic structure. In Language: An introduction to the study of speech (Chap. 6). (Online:

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