Synthetic language

Synthetic language

A synthetic language, in linguistic typology, is a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio. 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 strictly isolating (consistently one morpheme per word) at one end and highly polysynthetic (in which a single word may contain as much information as an entire English sentence) at the other extreme. Synthetic languages tend to lie around the middle of this scale.


Synthetic languages are numerous and well-attested, the most commonly cited being Indo-European languages such as Greek, Latin, German, Italian, Russian, Polish and Czech, as well as many languages of the Americas, including Navajo, Nahuatl, Mohawk and Quechua.

Forms of synthesis

There are several ways in which a language can exhibit synthetic characteristics:

Derivational synthesis

In derivational synthesis, morphemes of different types (nouns, verbs, affixes, etc.) are joined to create new words. For example:

German: Aufsichtsratsmitgliederversammlung => "On-view-council-with-limbs-gathering" meaning "meeting of members of the supervisory board" ("with" and "limb" forming a derivation that is the German word for "member")
Greek: υπερχοληστερολαίμια => "overmuch/high-cholesterol-blood+-ia(suffix)" meaning "hypercholesterolemia"
Polish: przystanek => "beside-stand-little" meaning "bus stop"
English: antidisestablishmentarianism => "against-ending-institutionalize-condition-advocate-ideology"

Russian: спасибо => "god-save-you" (thank you)

Relational synthesis

In relational synthesis, root words are joined to bound morphemes to show grammatical function:

Italian: comunicandovele => "communicating-you(plural)-those(feminine, plural)" meaning "(while or by) communicating those(feminine, plural) to you(plural)"
Spanish: escribiéndomelo => "writing-me-it(masculine/neuter)" meaning "(while or by) writing it to me"
Nahuatl: ocaltizquiya => "already-(she)-him-bathe-would" meaning "she would have bathed him"
Japanese: 見せられがたい (miseraregatai) => "see-causative-passive-difficult" meaning "it's difficult to be shown (this)"
Finnish: juoksentelisinkohan => "run-erratic motion-conditional-I-question-casual" meaning "I wonder if I should run around (aimlessly)"
Finnish: hiutaleannos => "flake-ration"; hiuta+le has the components hiutua meaning "to thin" and -le meaning "a small thing produced by the action", and ann+os is derived from antaa meaning "to give" and -os meaning "a mass transferred or made by the action".
Turkish: Afyonkarahisarlılaştıramayabileceklerimizdenmisiniz => meaning "Are you (all) amongst the ones whom we may not be able to make citizens of Afyonkarahisar?"

Degrees of synthesis

In order to demonstrate the "continuum" nature of the isolating-synthetic-polysynthetic classification, some examples are shown below:

Strictly isolating

Chinese (Mandarin):

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."

Each morpheme is represented by a unique word in the Chinese language.

Rather isolating

English: "He travelled by hovercraft on the sea." Largely isolating, but travelled and hovercraft each have two morphemes per word, the former being an example of relational synthesis (inflection), and the latter of derivational synthesis (derivation).

Rather synthetic

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," approximately 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 (the particles ni, no, wa are enclitic case markers, i.e., they are phonologically part of the previous word).

Very synthetic

Finnish: Käyttäytyessään tottelemattomasti oppilas saa jälki-istuntoa means "Should he/she behave in an insubordinate manner, the student will get detention." Structurally: behaviour(present/future tense)(of his/hers) obey(without)(in the manner/style) studying(he/she who (should be)) gets detention(some). Practically every word is derived and/or inflected, and one word can be considered polysynthetic. This is, however, very formal language - almost like judicial text - and usually replaced by more analytic structure: Kun oppilas käyttäytyy tottelemattomasti, hän saa jälki-istuntoa.


Mohawk: Washakotya'tawitsherahetkvhta'se means "He ruined her dress" (strictly, "He made the thing that one puts on one's body ugly for her"). One word expresses the idea that would be conveyed in an entire sentence in a non-polysynthetic language.


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.

See also

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