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- This article is about inflection in linguistics. For a mathematical meaning, see Stationary point.
Inflection or inflexion refers to a modification or marking of a word (or more precisely lexeme) so that it reflects grammatical (i.e. relational) information, such as grammatical gender, tense, person, etc.
Declension and conjugation
Those who study grammar may be familiar with two traditional grammatical terms that refer to inflectional paradigms of specific word classes:
- Declension: noun inflectional paradigm (often includes pronouns, adjectives, and demonstratives as well) (often involving number, case, or grammatical gender).
Below is an example of a noun declension of the Latin noun vir 'man'. It is inflected for case and number with suffixes.
Below is a conjugation of the verb hi 'arrive' in Lakhota. It is inflected for person with prefixes and for number with the suffix -pi.
|Inclusive (dual)||ų-hi||'you & I arrive'||ų-hi-pi||'we arrive'|
|2nd||ya-hi||'you arrive'||ya-hi-pi||'you all arrive'|
|3rd||hi||'he arrives'||hi-pi||'they arrive'|
However, these two terms seem to be biased toward well-known dependent-marking languages (such as Spanish, Latin, German, Russian, Japanese etc.). In dependent-marking languages, nouns in adpositional phrases can carry inflectional morphemes. (Adpositions include prepositions and postpositions.) In head-marking languages, the adpositions can carry the inflection in adpositional phrases. This means that these languages will have inflectional paradigms involving adpositions. In Western Apache (San Carlos dialect), the postposition -ká’ 'on' is inflected for person and number with prefixes.
|1st||shi-ká’||'on me'||noh-ká’||'on us two'||da-noh-ká’||'on us'|
|2nd||ni-ká’||'on you'||nohwi-ká’||'on you two'||da-nohwi-ká’||'on you all'|
|3rd||bi-ká’||'on him'||-||da-bi-ká’||'on them'|
Traditional grammars have specific terms for noun and verb paradigms but not for adpositional paradigms.
Inflection vs. derivation
Inflection is the process of adding inflectional morphemes (atomic meaning units) to a word, which may indicate grammatical information (i.e., case, number, person, grammatical gender/word class, mood, mode, tense, aspect, other relational info). Compare with derivational morphemes, which create a new word from an existing word, sometimes by simply changing grammatical category (e.g., changing a noun to a verb).
Words generally do not appear in dictionaries with inflectional morphemes. But they often do appear with derivational morphemes. For instance, English dictionaries list readable and readability, words with derivational suffixes, along with their root read. However, no English dictionary will list book as one entry and books as a separate entry nor will they list jump and jumped as two different entries.
In some languages, inflected words do not appear in a fundamental form (the Root morpheme) except in dictionaries and grammars.
Languages that add inflectional morphemes to words are sometimes called inflectional languages. Morphemes may be added in several different ways:
- affixing, or simply adding morphemes onto the word without changing the root,
- reduplication, doubling all or part of a word to change its meaning,
- alternation, exchanging one sound for another in the root (usually vowel sounds, as in the Ablaut process found in Germanic Strong verbs and the Umlaut often found in nouns, among others).
- stress, pitch and tone, where no sounds are added or changed but the intonation and relative strength of each sound is altered regularly.
Affixing includes prefixing (adding before the base), and suffixing (adding after the base), as well as the much less common infixing (inside) and circumfixing (a combination of prefix and suffix).
Relation to morphological typology
Inflection is sometimes confused with synthesis in languages. The two terms are related but not the same.
Languages are broadly classified morphologically into analytic and synthetic categories, or more realistically along a continuum between the two extremes. Analytic languages isolate meaning into individual words, whereas synthetic languages create words not found in the dictionary by fusing or agglutinating morphemes, sometimes to the extent of having a whole sentence's worth of meaning in a single word. Inflected languages by definition fall into the synthetic category, though not all synthetic languages need be inflected.
Inflection in various languages
Highly inflected language families
All Indo-European languages, such as English, German, Russian, Spanish, French, Sanskrit, and Hindi are inflected to a greater or lesser extent. In general, older Indo-European languages such as Latin, Latvian, and Lithuanian are moderately inflected. Newer languages such as English and French have lost much of their historical inflection. Afrikaans, an extremely young language, is almost completely uninflected and borders on being analytic. Some branches of Indo-European (e.g. the Slavic languages) seem to have generally retained more inflection than others (e.g. Romance languages).
Old English was a moderately inflected language, using an extensive case system similar to that of modern Icelandic or German. Middle and Modern English lost progressively more of the Old English inflectional system. Modern English is considered a weakly inflected language, since its nouns have only vestiges of inflection (plurals, the pronouns), and its regular verbs have only 2 inflections, third person singular, and everything else. Some linguists contend that the 's English possessive ("Jane's book") is a remnant of the genitive case; others hold it to be a clitic. See also declension in English.
Other Germanic languages
Old Norse was inflected, but modern Swedish, Norwegian and Danish have, like English, lost almost all inflection. Icelandic preserves many of the inflections of Old Norse. Modern German remains moderately inflected, retaining four noun cases, although the genitive began falling into disuse in the late 20th century in all but formal writing. The case system of Dutch, simpler than German's, is also becoming more simplified in common usage. Afrikaans, recognized as a distinct language in its own right rather than a Dutch dialect only in the early 20th century, has lost almost all inflection.
East Asian languages
Some of the major Eastern Asian languages (such as the various Chinese languages and Vietnamese) are not inflected, or show very little inflection, so they are considered Analytic languages (a.k.a. isolating languages).
Japanese, a probable language isolate, shows a high degree of inflection on verbs, less so on adjectives and nouns, but it is always strictly agglutinative and extremely regular. Formally, every noun phrase must be marked for case, but this is done by invariable particles (clitic postpositions). (Many grammarians consider Japanese particles to be separate words, and therefore not an inflection, while others consider agglutination a type of inflection, and therefore consider Japanese nouns inflected.)
Basque, another language isolate, is an extremely inflected polysynthetic language, heavily inflecting both nouns and verbs. A Basque noun is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number. These first 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again. It's been estimated that at two levels of recursion, a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms (Agirre et al, 1992). Verb forms are similarly complex, agreeing with the subject, the direct object and several other arguments.
In English many nouns are inflected for number with the inflectional plural affix -s (as in "dog" → "dog-s"), and most English verbs are inflected for tense with the inflectional past tense affix -ed (as in "call" → "call-ed").
English also inflects verbs by affixation to mark the third person singular in the present tense (with -s), and the present participle (with -ing). English short adjectives are inflected to mark comparative and superlative forms (with -er and -est respectively).
- write, wrote, written (Ablaut, and also suffixing in the participle)
- sing, sang, sung (Ablaut)
- foot, feet (Umlaut)
- mouse, mice (Umlaut)
- child, children (vowel alternation, and also suffixing in the plural)
A limited subset of English verbs and nouns are related by stress-change inflection. Such is the case of pairs like a record (noun, stressed on the first syllable) vs. to record (verb, stressed on the last).
In the past, writers sometimes gave words such as doctor, Negro, dictator, professor, and orator Latin inflections to mark them as feminine, thus forming doctress, Negress, dictatrix, professress, and oratress. The former words were never frequently used, although many English users continue to use Latin endings today in somewhat more common constructions such as actress and waitress.
German, which is related to English, employs many of these inflectional devices, but Umlaut and Ablaut are widespread, while in English they are considered more like exceptions.
Latin and Romance languages
The Romance languages like Spanish, Italian, French, etc., are more inflectional than English, especially when it comes to verb forms. A single morpheme usually carries information about person, number, tense, aspect and mood, and the verb paradigm may be considerably complex. Nouns are simpler, but they are inflected by number and grammatical gender. There is no Ablaut or Umlaut, and only little predictable vowel alternation, found on certain verbs where the Latin root had the phonemes /E/ or /O/.
Latin is in fact more complicated, showing Ablaut in the verb paradigm, and also some verb inflection for voice (which is realized only by syntactic means in its daughter languages), as well as a more complicated noun paradigm (with several patterns of declension, and three genders instead of the two found in most Romance tongues).
- Inflection entry at Encyclopedia.com
- SIL: What is inflection?
- SIL: What is an inflectional affix?
- SIL: What is an inflectional category?
- SIL: What is a morphological process?
- SIL: What is derivation?
- SIL: Comparison of inflection and derivation
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Inflection, Derivation
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Conjugation, Declension
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Base, Stem, Root
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Defective Paradigm
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Strong Verb
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Inflection Phrase (IP), INFL, AGR, Tense
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Lexicalist Hypothesis
- SIL: What is an agglutinative language?
- SIL: What is a fusional language?
- SIL: What is an isolating language?
- SIL: What is a polysynthetic language?
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Agglutinating Language, Fusional Morphology, Isolating Language, Polysynthetic Language
References and recommended reading
- Agirre, E.; Alegria I.; Arregi, X.; Artola, X.; Díaz de Ilarraza, A.; Maritxalar M.; et al. (1992). XUXEN: A spelling checker/corrector for Basque based on two-level morphology. Proceedings of the Third Conference of Applied Natural Language Processing. Online version: http://acl.ldc.upenn.edu/A/A92/A92-1016.pdf
- Bauer, Laurie. (2003). Introducing linguistic morphology (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. ISBN 0-878-40343-4.
- Bubenik, Vit. (1999). An introduction to the study of morphology. LINCON coursebooks in linguistics, 07. Muenchen: LINCOM Europa. ISBN 3-89586-570-2.
- Haspelmath, Martin. (2002). Understanding morphology. London: Arnold (co-published by Oxford University Press). ISBN 0-340-76025-7 (hb); ISBN 0-340-76206-5 (pbk).
- Katamba, Francis. (1993). Morphology. Modern linguistics series. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-10101-5 (hb); ISBN 0-312-10356-5 (pbk).
- Matthews, Peter. (1991). Morphology (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-41043-6 (hb); ISBN 0-521-42256-6 (pbk).
- Nichols, Johanna. (1986). Head-marking and dependent-marking grammar. Language, 62 (1), 56-119.
- de Reuse, Willem J. (forthcoming). A practical grammar of the San Carlos Apache language.
- Spencer, Andrew, & Zwicky, Arnold M. (Eds.) (1998). The handbook of morphology. Blackwell handbooks in linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-18544-5.
- Stumpe, Gregory T. (2001). Inflectional morphology: A theory of paradigm structure. Cambridge studies in linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-78047-0.
- Van Valin, Robert D., Jr. (2001). An introduction to syntax. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-63566-7 (pbk); ISBN 0-521-63199-8 (hb).
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