Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Analytic language

[News on the weakness of some hand sanitizers leads to alcohol gel leads to napalm leads to portmanteau leads to fusional language leads to...]

An analytic language (or isolating language) is a language in which the vast majority of morphemes are free morphemes and considered to be full-fledged "words". By contrast, in a synthetic language, a word is composed of agglutinated or fused morphemes that denote its syntactic meanings....

Analytic languages often express abstract concepts using independent words, while synthetic languages tend to use adpositions, affixes and internal modifications of roots for the same purpose.

Analytic languages have stricter and more elaborate syntactic rules. Since words are not marked by morphology showing their role in the sentence, word order tends to carry a lot of importance; for example, Chinese and English make use of word order to show subject-object relationship. Chinese also uses word order to show definiteness (where English uses "the" and "a"), topic-comment relationships, the role of adverbs (whether they are descriptive or contrastive), and so on.

Analytic languages tend to rely heavily on context and pragmatic considerations for the interpretation of sentences, since they don't specify as much as synthetic languages in terms of agreement and cross-reference between different parts of the sentence.

Chinese (of all varieties) is perhaps the best-known analytic language. To illustrate:

"My friends all want to eat eggs."
所有 朋友
suǒyǒu de péngyou dōu yào chī dàn
I all possessive friend(s) all want eat chicken egg(s)

As can be seen, each syllable (or sometimes two) corresponds to a single concept; in addition it can be seen that two words (所有 and 都) cooperate to form the concept of "all", which gives an idea of the syntactical rules that dominate the grammars of such languages. Comparing the Chinese to the English translation, one sees that while English itself is fairly analytic, it contains some agglutinative features, such as the bound morpheme -/s/ to mark either possession (in the form of a clitic) or number (in the form of a suffix).

Outside China, Southeast Asia is home to many analytic languages, such as Thai and Vietnamese.

When compared with a synthetic language, such as German, the contrast becomes clear:

der Mann die Männer
der Mann die Männer
the.masculine.nominative.singular man.singular the.nominative.plural man.plural

Note that the morpheme "der" corresponds to four separate concepts simultaneously, and the morpheme "die" refers to three concepts (German does not distinguish gender in the plural), but the rules relating "der" and "die" in this manner are quite arbitrary, making this set of morphemes fusional in nature. It is worth mentioning that both "der" and "die" also can function as a feminine singular definite article, depending on the case. Furthermore, the word "Männer" corresponds to two concepts and relates to "Mann" through both the plural marker /-er/ and a process of umlaut that changes "a" to "ä" in many German plurals. Thus, the formation of German plurals is a simple, rule-governed inflectional pattern.

As a result, German can be said to lie between the agglutinative and fusional areas of the spectrum of linguistic typology.

Bulgarian is the only analytic Slavic language acquiring this feature from the Balkan linguistic union. This allows us to study the process. In the beginning, cases began to mix sounds; this paved the way for the distinctions between forms to be forgotten. Old relationships expressed by inflected words were, it is supposed, first replaced by prepositional phrases. If a preposition took an inflected word after itself, it was a short walk for the word to lose its declension, because cases after prepositions are in semantically weak positions – that is, replacing one case by another after prepositions doesn't affect meaning as much as does changing the case of a free inflected word (since prepositions distinguish meanings fairly unambiguously from the start).

Pronoun cases always tend to survive better than noun cases, but consider English "Me and him went a long way" or the hypercorrect "The shipmaster saluted Martin and she".


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