A synthetic language
, in linguistic typology
, is a language
with a high morpheme
ratio. This linguistic classification is largely independent of morpheme-usage classifications (such as fusional
, 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
, as well as many languages of the Americas, including Navajo
Forms of synthesis
There are several ways in which a language can exhibit synthetic characteristics:
In derivational synthesis
, morphemes of different types (nouns
, 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)
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:
|| 蛋糕 |
|| 蛋糕 |
|| dàn'gāo |
|| (subordinating particle)
|| cake |
| "Tomorrow my friends will make a birthday cake for me."
Each morpheme is represented by a unique word in the Chinese language.
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).
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).
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.