Languages that are gaining morphological distinctions



In diachronic comparison of languages, say PIE to Latin to Romance, it is a classic recognition that the later languages strictly lose some of the morphologically marked categories. PIE had 8 noun cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, etc), Latin 5, Romance 2 or even 1. Pick a morphological category and pretty much always the complexity is reduced: past participles in English are more likely to become weak rather than strong, the subjunctive is disappearing, there's no grammatical gender at all.

Presumably those forms (that were later lost) came from somewhere, those categories and phonological markers were created. I can imagine a cycle of inflected to isolating (a period of loss) and then back to inflectional where the grammatical markers get phonologically assimilated (fused onto the root), but i have no data to support this.

I feel like I heard a long time ago that Finnish/Hungarian/Turkish might be gaining distinctions or that the word initial inflections in verbs in Irish came from phonological interaction between a pronoun and the following verb, but those are just vague intimations. I am looking for more substantively presented examples.

Is there any definitive data of a language moving from isolating to inflected? Present day examples are best, but attested versions (not theoretical) from the past would be good too.


Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 2 769

Latin has six cases: Nominative, Accusative, Vocative, Genitive, Dative, Ablative.Alenanno 2011-09-14T17:58:35.030

6Bah vocative is only a case because it was the easiest way to deal with it d-;hippietrail 2011-09-14T18:21:20.533

It's still a case, though. :PAlenanno 2011-09-14T18:23:48.327

@Alenanno: yeah, I know, but really, how often is the vocative of 'felicitas' ever used? (hm...I have this weird feeling you'll show me some quote from Virgil or Ovid).Mitch 2011-09-14T18:55:15.253

@Mitch: ahah no, don't worry. You made me do some searching though, and I found out that some scholars don't consider it a true case like the other ones, because it doesn't really have peculiar endings and stuff... So well, I guess that are many trends about it. :)Alenanno 2011-09-14T18:57:58.583

@Mitch: The vocative of felicitas is felicitas — but you probably know that. Vocatives of abstract words are not so rare as might think: apostrophe (turning-away of the regular story-telling perspective to directly address someone or something) is quite regular with such abstract words. "Oh, happiness, why hast thou deserted me?"Cerberus 2011-09-14T20:09:12.740

@Alenanno: Indeed, vocative and locative are very weak cases of cases in Latin. I'd still call them cases, but they are not "main" cases, and I'd probably rather say that Latin has five cases than seven, though the latter is defensible.Cerberus 2011-09-14T20:10:41.287

4If vocative is a case then "oh" in English is a preposition. d-;hippietrail 2011-09-14T20:51:30.290

Vocative is very much alive and sometimes even obligatory in the Balkans, including in the surviving Balkan Romance languages. For abstract words, named entities etc too. If you are arguing that it was not so in Latin, then you have an answer to the OP's question.A. M. Bittlingmayer 2016-08-25T18:34:13.283

Historical example:

A. M. Bittlingmayer 2016-09-03T13:09:20.047

1@hippietrail don't you mean an article? :-)James Tauber 2011-09-18T16:08:41.043



In Spanish, infinitives and imperatives have their object-pronouns attached to them, as in dámelo ("give it to me"), a compound of da ("give"), me ("to me"), lo ("it"). To me, these look like proto-conjugations. In particular, they have already begun to develop irregularities: "give it to him" should logically be dálelo, but some sort of euphonic change (not sure what this is called) has changed the middle consonant to s, creating the modern Spanish dáselo. With a few more such changes, this simple agglutination may someday become become a "morphological category" as impenetrable as the Latin noun.

Anschel Schaffer-Cohen

Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 595

I always thought of that as an orthographical convention, but the sound change does give evidence that it is more than that.Mitch 2011-09-15T14:04:04.190

There are actually more irregularities popping up in "non-standard" Central American dialects, but I can't remember the details offhand--apparently people say dáselos for "Give it to them," which should logically be dáleslo and "correctly" dáselo.Anschel Schaffer-Cohen 2011-09-15T16:04:22.167

1As Cesar points out, the le-se irregularity is an irregularity in the dative pronoun, and thus is independent from the attachment to infinitives an imperatives. As for the attachment (which has parallels in other romance languages as well, some with hyphens) I hesitate to consider that more than an orthographical convention. A real gain in morphology would be if that morphology took over functions previously held by syntax, e.g. if gain in morphology came to allow a freer word order.dainichi 2012-05-11T02:47:42.890

Yes is Central America I believe you can hear loismo, laismo, and of course voseo.hippietrail 2011-09-18T18:43:57.093

1@hippietrail: True, but I don't think what I'm describing is any of those three.Anschel Schaffer-Cohen 2011-09-18T20:23:57.893

The phenomenon causing the s could be dissimulation, just as Latin *caelulus => caerulus (from caelum, "heaven, sky").Cerberus 2012-07-23T12:27:21.517

4@Anschel Schaffer-Cohen: The 'change' from "dámelo" to "dáselo" is way more general than you point out. "se" is a word in Spanish that occurs as a standalone particle too, as in "se lo dije" (I said it to him/her) rather than the incorrect "le lo dije". Just checking that you are aware of this. :-)CesarGon 2011-09-20T21:55:59.107

@CesarGon: I am aware of this, but the "se lo" of "se lo dije" strikes me as a bit more independent (in terms of word order) than the "selo" of "díselo", so I wasn't sure if it counted as an answer to the question. That said, I'm not sure whether they really are independent.Anschel Schaffer-Cohen 2011-09-20T23:22:23.937

1@Anschel Schaffer-Cohen: As far as I understand, both "se" (in "se lo dije" and "díselo") are dative personal pronouns; they are the same word. They are the modern form of old Spanish "ge", which in turn is based on the same latin forms as modern Spanish "le" (as you pointed out). Anyway.CesarGon 2011-09-20T23:34:12.743

A similar thing happens with Portuguese infinitives, where the /r/ changes to /l/ in infinitive + 3rd-person pronoun (e.g. criar + o becomes criá-lo, 'create it').Mechanical snail 2013-01-25T06:13:18.763


Inflectional markers can come from originally isolated words (e.g. pronouns) so there is definitely a cycle where:

  1. separate words become clitics
  2. clitics become inflections
  3. inflections get reanalyzed as part of the stem
  4. inflectional syncretism takes place
  5. separate words are introduced to disambiguate the syncretism
  6. rinse-and-repeat

James Tauber

Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 773

5Yes, that's the description of the phenomenon I'm wondering about. But do you have any actual examples? Separately, any examples for which the inflectional syncretism has been taking place in the past century or so?Mitch 2011-09-18T16:37:21.377

For syncretism, see the Surrey Morphology Group's database at

James Tauber 2011-09-18T16:41:37.153

I find that site hard to judge. Can you spell out one example from there that shows that there is a diachronic change where a clitic is becoming an inflection (or whatever it is)?Mitch 2011-09-18T20:09:56.293

One of the classic examples in English is let us > let's > lets but see any book on Grammaticalization for other examplesJames Tauber 2011-09-19T14:11:33.763

Good sporadic example. Sorry to be picky, but it is not of the majority of clitics moving to inflections. Are any of the examples at the syncretism website you gave more substantial (and can you explain one)?Mitch 2011-09-19T14:44:05.100

@Mitch I'm confused what you are asking; the literature on grammaticalization will have plenty of examples of how separate words become inflectional affixes (presumably with an intermediate stage of cliticization) and then get renewed as a periphrastic form and so on (French inflections coming from Latin periphrastics coming from Latin inflections coming from PIE periphrastics and so on)James Tauber 2011-09-19T23:54:30.923

wow that's excellent. That's what I'm looking for. Except I have no evidence of that from what I know of Old French (which I thought was already inflected). Do you have a reference for that? Can you give more details, like a before and after conjugation for one verb, present tense, the before with just clitics and the after inflected?Mitch 2011-09-20T00:30:45.747

@Mitch see Hopper and Traugott (1.2.3 talks specifically about the Latin / French example I gave but the entire book is relevant to this topic)James Tauber 2011-09-20T03:53:50.173

Thanks for the reference. From a superficial perusal of that text (namely sections 1.2.3 and 3.3.1), that derivation is purely 'posited' and theoretical...there's not written record of the 'missing link'. Are there other examples, in that text (or elsewhere) of an across-the-board change from non-inflectional to inflectional?Mitch 2011-09-20T19:31:39.283


I can't think of examples off the top of my head, but I'm sure you can find some in the work of linguists like Elly van Gelderen, who has a theory about exactly what you're talking about ("the linguistic cycle"), and I believe has written or edited at least one book about it recently. You probably should also take a look at the grammaticalization literature. I think Joan Bybee might be a good place to start, if you haven't already.

This is not absolutely precisely the question you asked, but you might also find this article interesting. It claims roughly that morphological systems tend to get simpler as speaker population increases. As you might imagine, it's controversial in some quarters.

Alan H.

Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 582

2Excellent references...I'll take a look. But for the sake of Linguistics.SE, can you add to your answer at least one example?Mitch 2011-09-15T13:56:16.163

Here's a class handout on the Grammaticalization cycle.

jlawler 2013-04-12T21:34:19.263


It has been argued that in French, subject pronouns are in the process of becoming inflectional elements. Culbertson (2010) "Convergent evidence for Categorial Change in French" Language vol. 86 num. 1 is a recent paper arguing this hypothesis.


Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 3 232

10For the sake of linguistics.SE, can you spell out an example from the paper here?Mitch 2011-09-15T14:02:57.280


In languages with serial verb constructions, some standardized verbs are reanalyzed as cases, for instance in Akan a sentence that is glossed "Kofi take knife cut meat" it can be argued that "take" is an instrumental. "give" this often becomes a dative-marker, "have" turns into a genitive etc. Hm, was that in Paul Schachters paper in Language Typology and Syntactic Description?


Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 3 492

So is this an historical process, changes that have occurred over years, or is it a reanalysis of what is going on now?Mitch 2011-09-14T20:39:06.333

Various languages are in different stages on that particular cline. It's commonly discussed in works on serial verb constructions in African languages, and let me see if I have that really nice paper by Larson here... Larson, R. (1991) "Some issues in verb serialization"

kaleissin 2011-09-14T21:14:25.817

4I recommend that you put the link to that paper into the answer. I think we should encourage more answers that actually refer to the linguistic literature.JSBձոգչ 2011-09-15T11:52:22.803


Even the languages you mentioned as losing inflections in your question gained others, several of the inflections of verbs in romance languages came from periphrastic constructions in vulgar latin, most prominent the future and conditional tenses, for example, french "tiendrai, tiendras, tiendra, tiendrons, tiendrez, tiendront" come from contractions of tenire and a conjugation of habere in latin, the resemblance in the future tense suffixes and conjugations of avoir can even be seen in the modern language, "ai as a avons avez ont". The conditional endings are of a similar origin, coming from a fusion of the infinitive and the imperfect conjugations of habere. I'm surprised no one above me mentioned this.


Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 41

1This is the grammaticalization cycle mentioned by John Lawler and James Tauber.Mitch 2015-06-09T02:54:53.960


One well-known example is the emerging Russian neo-vocative:

In modern colloquial Russian given names and a small family of terms often take a special "shortened" form that some linguists consider a reemerging vocative case.[4] This form is applied only to given names and nouns that end in -a and -я, which are optionally dropped in the vocative form: "Лен, где ты?" ("Lena, where are you?"). This is basically equivalent to "Лена, где ты?", the only difference being that the former version suggests a positive personal, emotional bond between the speaker and the person being addressed. Names that end in -я acquire a soft sign in this case: "Оль!" = "Оля!" ("Olga!"). In addition to given names, this form is often used with words like "мама" (mama, mom) and "папа" (papa, dad), which would be respectively "shortened" to "мам" (mam) and "пап" (pap). In plural this form is used with words such as "ребят", "девчат" (nominative: "ребята" "девчата", guys gals).

Such usage differs from historical vocative (which would be "Лено" in the example above) and is not related to such historical usage.

I am no native speaker but my sense is that for now it is used more with some words than with others, and rarely with words that already have a diminutive ending (eg "Ленка", "бабушка", "бабуля", "секретарша").

A. M. Bittlingmayer

Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 3 019

I'm a native speaker. Although it looks like an emerging case and I'd like it to be so, I think it's far from that. Technically, it's simply over-reduction of the last syllable. When you address someone in an exaggerated fashion (for example in a forest), you over-stretch the stressed syllable "Leeeeena!" The final -a is reduced to zero due to compensatory shortening (is there such a term?) Hence this "case" is only applied to diminutive names/nicknames/household names, because you usually do not address, say, your boss, with "BOOOOS!"Constantine Geist 2017-04-19T22:22:03.937

@ConstantineGeist That may be the answer to why, but at some point these things take on a life of their own. It's also dangerous to assume that people only want to shorten, the same people may add in other syllables like дорогая. And it is only happening to -а. Can I ask, in Russia does it happen to masculine names like Дима or Вова?A. M. Bittlingmayer 2017-04-20T07:46:29.863

1Yes, it happens to masculine names, too.Constantine Geist 2017-04-20T13:25:33.117

"but at some point these things take on a life of their own" There are many cases in colloquial language where words are shortened in casual speech due to reductions and other elisions: čto-nibuď' > čoňť "something", budet > buet "it will be", chočeš > choš "you want", päťdesät > pisät "fifty"; but only this "neo-vocative" case has been consistently reflected in writing/mentioned, because people want hard to have a new case :)Constantine Geist 2017-04-20T13:31:00.140

But the point is that that all cases have an origin that at one point was not case per se. How do you think the other case morphology evolved?A. M. Bittlingmayer 2017-04-20T20:14:34.517


I think such fusion of morphemes onto word-roots to form morphological categories is happening in spoken language, but in today’s world where languages tend to have standardised orthographies, they are seen as colloquial, corrupted, or uneducated, and thus are considered by linguists to be not worth analysing.

For example, I would argue that most dialects of English already have forms such as gimme, givya, givim/giver, givus, givyall and givem. In standard orthography they would be written as give me etc., but we all know most people pronounce them as these fused forms. So the real question is when these will become established orthography, and my suspicion is that it will never happen given how strongly English spelling resists reform despite its clearly showing age.

Also, if I may add a claim that I cannot substantiate, I thought I read somewhere that PIE had only two genders (animate and inanimate). If this is indeed the case, the distinction between masculine and feminine was gained at some point. I think it was said that the feminine evolved out of the plural of inanimates; I don’t know exactly how that’s supposed to work, but it would explain why neuter nominative plural and feminine nominative singular tend to have the same ending, -a, in many IE languages.


Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 470

I know there's been lots of scholarly research into PIE, but I still have misgivings about making inferences about it as though it were a language with extant text to check hypotheses. (that is, I feel like it is too easy to take as facts about it things that were simply hypotheses or guesses made in the reconstruction.Mitch 2011-09-14T19:38:00.800

4"they are seen as colloquial, corrupted, or uneducated, and thus are considered by linguists to be not worth analysing." I don't know which linguists you have in mind. Most of the ones I know subscribe to the generally accepted principle that non-stantard varieties of language are perfectly legitimate and are often very interesting to study.Alan H. 2011-09-14T23:37:46.077

@Timwi: your 'gimme' examples are in the right spirit. However, (maybe I'm too stuck on the romance examples of inflection), the conversion of object pronouns to verb inflections seems out of the ordinary, since most verb inflections are about agreement with the subject. All I know are Indo-European style inflections...any examples of Semitic or Dravidian?Mitch 2011-09-15T14:01:48.670

1@Mitch Off the top of my head, Navajo (a prefixing language), Inuit, Quechua, and I think Cherokee all have dual agreement, with subject and object and sometimes other categories being marked by inflections of the verb. If you look into other languages of the Americas I think you'll find it's a generally common feature. Also, in Basque, the ergative subject of a verb is indicated with a suffix, and other verb arguments are indicated with prefixes. I don't know about the historical linguistics of any of these though, so I can't say if the inflections are recent developments.Kaninchen 2016-01-08T21:23:51.633


As indicated by Anschel Schaffer-Cohen, certain changes in Romance languages can be considered as gaining new inflections. Spanish is a very nice example but Portuguese is even better because there is actually some phonetic merger that makes the words even more difficult to separate:

fazer+os = fazê-los (to do them)

In French, where the structure of a phrase is quite rigid, you can separate the subject and the verb basically only by grammatical morphemes and from a certain perspective, the subject pronoun can be considered a conjugational prefix of a verb and considering it a separate word is just a matter of linguistic/orthographic tradition (it is separated with a space).

Of course there are counter arguments, e.g. in 3rd person, the pronoun may be replaced by a noun, so it is not strictly obligatory, but still you have phrases like "Éric, il travaille", where the noun is highlighted and thus the pronoun needs to be present.

In certain pidgins of French, this evolution actually goes further - in French there is a phenomenon called liaison, basically a consonant that used to be pronounced at the end of the word and disappeared is still preserved and resurfaces in certain contest (ils parlent /il parl/ - they talk vs ils aiment /il zem/ - they love), and the pidgins reinterpreted the resurfacing /z/ phoneme is an initial marker of plural (qui s-aiment ils? /ki zem il/ - who do they like?) and you can find this tendency emerging in spoken French too.


Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 1 844


[...] the word initial inflections in verbs in Irish came from phonological interaction between a pronoun and the following verb [...]

I'm not quite sure what you mean here.

Irish is VSO. As such, a verb very rarely (if indeed ever) follows a pronoun:

Chonaic  mé    an       cailín.
Saw-PRET I-NOM the-SING girl-MASC.

We can see the use of prepositions (more so the associate agreements) in Irish affecting the past tense, though. Traditionally, the past tense was created by preceding the infinitive with to preposition "do" (Ith -> D'ith), which causes a lenition (Bí -> Do bhí -> Bhí).

Richard King

Posted 2011-09-14T17:36:21.640

Reputation: 187

1On looking things up, frankly I have no idea where my Irish idea came from. I'll research (so far Swahili is the only example I've found with prefix inflections but they don't have the sound changes I remember reading.Mitch 2013-01-23T00:34:52.130

Swahili is a little outside my comfort zone!Richard King 2013-01-23T03:30:16.040