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A synthetic language, in linguistic typology, is a language with a high morpheme-to-word ratio. This linguistic classification is largely independent of morpheme-usage classifications (such as inflectional, 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 German and Russian, virtually the entire Altaic superfamily (comprising Turkish, Mongolian and the Tungusic languages), the Uralic languages (including Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian), Japanese, Korean, as well as many Native American languages including Navajo, Nahuatl, and Iroquoian languages (such as Mohawk and Quechua).
Forms of synthesis
There are several ways in which a language can exhibit synthetic characteristics:
- German: Luftkissenfahrzeug "air-cushion-travel-machine" = "hovercraft"
- Japanese: teishaeki "stop-car-station" = "station where the train stops"
- Finnish: pikakaurahiutaleannos "quick-oat-flake-ration" = "a serving of quick oatmeal"
- English: indisputably = "not-dispute-possible-ADVERB"
- Nahuatl: ocaltizquiya "already-(she)-him-bathe-would" = "she would have bathed him"
- Japanese: miseraregatai "see-causative-passive-difficult" = "it"s difficult to be shown (this)"
- Finnish: juokse·ntel·isi·n·ko·han "run-erratic motion-conditional-I-question-casual" = "I wonder if I should run around (aimlessly)"
- Finnish: hiutaleannos = "flake-ration"; hiuta+le has the components hiutua "to thin" and -le "a small thing produced by the action", and ann+os is derived from antaa "to give" and -os "a mass transferred or made by the action".
Degrees of synthesis
In order to demonstrate the "continuum" nature of the isolating-synthetic-polysynthetic classification, some examples are shown below:
Tahitian: Ua marere te manu na te ara means "The bird flew off into the distance." Virtually every word is a stand-alone morpheme.
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: Watashitachi ni totte, kono naku kodomo no shashin wa miseraregatai mono desu means "For us, it's difficult to be shown these pictures of children crying." Virtually every word has more than one morpheme and some have up to five (the particles ni, no, wa are enclitic, i. e. phonologically part of the previous word).
Finnish: Käyttäytyessään tottelemattomasti oppilas saa jälki-istuntoa means "Should he behave in an insubordinate manner, the student will get detention." Practically every word is derived and/or inflected, and one word can be considered polysynthetic.
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.
In 2004, computer scientist and linguist Ernst Herrera Legorreta put forward new evidence in support of Whorf's original claims about Nahuatl. It has yet to be seen whether this will change the academic consensus with respect to oligosynthesis.
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