In linguistic typology, a synthetic language is a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio, as opposed to a low morpheme-per-word ratio in what is described as an analytic language. This linguistic classification is largely independent of morpheme-usage classifications (such as fusional, agglutinative, etc.), although there is a common tendency for agglutinative languages to exhibit synthetic properties.
Synthetic and analytic languages
Synthetic languages compose (synthesize) multiple concepts into each word, while analytic languages break up (analyze) concepts into separate words. The distinction is a matter of degree: the most analytic languages consistently have one morpheme per word, while, at the other extreme, in polysynthetic languages, a single inflected verb may contain as much information as an entire English sentence. Synthetic languages lie between the two.
Synthetic languages are numerous and well-attested. Most Indo-European languages, all Kartvelian languages such as Georgian, some Semitic languages such as Arabic, and many languages of the Americas, including Navajo, Nahuatl, Mohawk, and Quechua are synthetic.
More specifically, this includes Indo-European languages of the Romance family (Latin, Italian, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Romanian, etc.), of the Germanic family (German, Dutch language etc.), of the Slavic family (Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, Czech, Bulgarian, Slovak, Bosnian, Montenegrin, etc.), of the Indo-Iranian family (Sanskrit, Hindi, Persian, Urdu etc.) as well as Greek, Albanian, Armenian, Latvian, and Lithuanian.
Forms of synthesis
There are several ways in which a language can exhibit synthetic characteristics:
- German: Aufsichtsratsmitgliederversammlung => "Supervision + council + member + assembly" meaning "meeting of members of the supervisory board" ("with" and "link" (as in link of a chain) form a derivation that is the German word for "member"; similarly, "completion", "collect" and "noun" form a derivation that means "meeting", with both "ver-" and "-ung" being bound morphemes)
- Greek: προ-παρ-οξυ-τόν-ησις => "pre" + "next to" + "sharp" + "pitch/tone" + "tendency (suffix)", the tendency to accent on the proparoxytone position
- Polish: przystanek => "beside-stand-little" meaning "bus stop", "tram stop", or "rail halt"
- English: antidisestablishmentarianism => "against-ending-institutionalize-condition-advocate-ideology" meaning "the movement to prevent revoking the Church of England's status as the official church" (of England, Ireland, and Wales). English word chains such as child labour law may count as well, because it is merely an orthographic convention to write them as isolated words. Grammatically and phonetically they behave like one word (stress on the first syllable, plural morpheme at the end).
- Russian: достопримечательность (dostoprimechatel'nost') => "Deserving (intensifying prefix)-notable-(noun suffix)" meaning "place of interest"
- Malayalam: അങ്ങനെയല്ലാതായിരിക്കുമ്പോളൊക്കെത്തന്നെ ('angnganeyallaathaayirikkumpOLokkeththanne') => "such/so-not-has-been-when-occasions-all-exclusively" meaning "on all such occasions when it has been not so"
- international classical compounds based on Greek and Latin: hypercholesterolemia υπερχοληστερολαιμία => "overmuch/high + (bile + solid + -ol(e) (chemical suffix)) + blood + -ia (abstraction – in this case disease – feminine suffix)", i.e. the presence of high levels of cholesterol in the blood.
- Finnish: Juoksentelisinkohan => "run" + "I" + "aimlessly" + "wonder if" + (intensifying affix) = I wonder whether I should run aimlessly?
- Persian: نوازندگی (navaz.ande.gi) => "play" + "doer" + "-ship" meaning "playing on a musical instrument"
- Italian: comunic-ando-ve-le => "communicate-GERUND-you(plural)-those(feminine, plural)" meaning '(while or by) communicating those(feminine, plural) to you(plural)'
- Spanish: escrib-iéndo-me-lo => "write-GERUND-me-it(masculine/neuter)" 'writing it to me'
- Nahuatl: ō-c-ā-lti-zquiya => "PAST-3SG.OBJ-water-CAUS-IRREAL" meaning 'she would have bathed him'
- Latin: com-prim-unt-ur => "together-crush-they-PASSIVE" 'They are crushed together'
- Albanian: jepmani => "give-to me-it(singular)-you(plural)-IMPERATIVE" 'You, give it to me'
- Japanese: 見させられがたい (misaseraregatai) => "see-causative-passive-difficult" 'it's difficult to be shown (this)'
- Finnish: juoksentelisinkohan => "run-erratic motion-conditional-I-question-casual" 'I wonder if I should run around (aimlessly)'
- Hungarian: ház-a-i-tok-ban => "house-(possession)-(plural)-your(plural)-in" 'in your houses', szeret-lek => "love-I you" 'I love you'
- Turkish: Afyonkarahisarlılaştıramayabileceklerimizden misiniz? => "Afyonkarahisar-from/citizen of-transform-transformed into (makes the previous suffix passive)-not-be able-(future tense)-(plural)-we-among-(question)-are you?" meaning "Are you (all) amongst the ones whom we might not be able to make citizens of Afyonkarahisar?"
- Georgian: gadmogwakhtunebinebdneno (gad-mo-gw-a-xtun-eb-in-eb-d-nen-o) means "They said that they would be forced by them (the others) to make someone to jump over in this direction". The word describes the whole sentence that incorporates tense, subject, object, relation between them, direction of the action, conditional and causative markers etc.
Degrees of synthesis
In order to demonstrate the "continuum" nature of the analytic–synthetic–polysynthetic classification, some examples are shown below:
- Mandarin lacks inflectional morphology almost entirely, and most words consist of either one or two syllable morphemes, especially two due to the very numerous compound words. This makes it noticeably more analytic than many other languages, even slightly more so than English.
|tomorrow day||I||of||friend friend||will||for||I||do||birth day||egg cake (literal)|
|"Tomorrow my friend(s) will make a birthday cake for me."|
However, with rare exceptions, each syllable in Mandarin (corresponding to a single written character) represents a morpheme with an identifiable meaning, even if many of such morphemes are bound. This gives rise to the common misconception that Chinese consists exclusively of "words of one syllable". As the sentence above illustrates, however, even simple Chinese words such as míngtiān 'tomorrow' (míng "bright" + tīan "day") and péngyou 'friend' (a compound of péng and yǒu, both of which mean 'friend') are synthetic compound words. This is of interest for reconstruction of hypothesized nostratic and proto-world languages.
The Chinese language of the Classic works, and of Confucius for example, is more strictly monosyllabic: each character represents one word. The evolution of modern Mandarin Chinese was accompanied by a reduction in the total number of phonemes. Words which previously were phonetically distinct became homophones. Many disyllabic words in modern Mandarin are the result of joining two related words (such as péngyou, literally "friend-friend") in order to resolve the phonetic ambiguity. A similar process is observed in some English dialects. For instance, in the Southern dialect of American English, it is not unusual for the short vowel sounds ĕ and i to be indistinguishable: thus the words "pen" and "pin" are homophones. In this dialect, the ambiguity is often resolved by using the compounds "ink-pen" and "stick-pin", in order to clarify which "p*n" is being discussed.
- English: "He travelled by hovercraft on the sea" is largely isolating, but travelled (although it is possible to say "did travel" instead) and hovercraft each have two morphemes per word, the former being an example of relational synthesis (inflection), and the latter of compounding synthesis (a special case of derivation with another free morpheme instead of a bound one).
- 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, "To us, these photos of a child crying are things that are difficult to be shown," meaning 'We cannot bear being shown these photos of a child crying' in more idiomatic English. In the example, most words have more than one morpheme and some have up to five. The number of child/children and even photo/photos is technically ambiguous, but it seems likely that child is singular.
- Finnish: Käyttäytyessään tottelemattomasti oppilas saa jälki-istuntoa means, "Should he behave in an insubordinate manner, the student will get detention." Structurally: behaviour (present/future tense) (of his) obey (without) (in the manner/style) studying (he who (should be)) gets detention (some). Practically every word is derived and/or inflected. However, this is quite formal language, and (especially in speech) would have various words replaced by more analytic structures: Kun oppilas käyttäytyy tottelemattomasti, hän saa jälki-istuntoa meaning 'When the student behaves in an insubordinate manner, he will get detention'.
- Georgian: gadmogvakhtunebinebdneno (gad-mo-gw-a-xtun-eb-in-eb-d-nen-o) means 'They said that they would be forced by them (the others) to make someone to jump over in this direction'. The word describes the whole sentence that incorporates tense, subject, direct and indirect objects, their plurality, relation between them, direction of the action, conditional and causative markers, etc.
- Classical Arabic: أوأعطيناكموه عبثًا؟ awaʼāʻṭaynākumūhu ʻabathan (a-wa-aʻṭay-nā-ku-mū-hu ʻabath-an) means "And did we give it (masc.) to you futilely?" in Arabic, each word consists of one root that has a basic meaning (aʻṭā 'give' and ʻabath 'futile'). Prefixes and suffixes are added to make the word incorporate subject, direct and indirect objects, number, gender, definiteness, etc.
- Mohawk: Washakotya'tawitsherahetkvhta'se means "He ruined her dress" (strictly, 'He made the-thing-that-one-puts-on-one's body ugly for her'). This one inflected verb in a polysynthetic language expresses an idea that can only be conveyed using multiple words in a more analytic language such as English.
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.
- SIL: What is a morphological process?
- SIL: What is derivation?
- SIL: Comparison of inflection and derivation
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Inflection, Derivation
- Lexicon of Linguistics: Base, Stem, Root
- "Linguistic typology" (PDF). (275 KiB), chapter 4 of Halvor Eifring & Rolf Theil: Linguistics for Students of Asian and African Languages