I’ve got a very important question concerning linguistic morphology. What is a clear-cut definition for polysynthesis? The isolating, synthetic, and agglutinative types of morphology are very obvious to me but I’ve been pondering how to define polysynthetic morphology and what its function is in polysynthetic languages. Could you also give me examples of languages that use polysynthesis? I’ve heard that some languages can be both agglutinative and polysynthetic but what is the difference between agglutination and polysynthesis in plain English? All the definitions that I’ve read in linguistic papers are a little on the technical side. Polysynthesis just seems so abstract.
Here is a little discussion with Maunus, who does some studies on these in comparative linguistics, and this is about "On the polysynthesis of Otomi":
by Nevill Fernando: Hi Maunus, This is a question about your today’s post. Hope you would like to answer it. To reduce the complications, I wanted to put a few questions in a list form, but I am not sure now. So I ask you this way--how did you reach the conclusion that Otomi to be being a polysynthetic language? Is there a particular linguistic-typology chart available now to classify languages? If there isn’t any, what are those features that you claim for Otomi as being neither of the agglutinative nor of the analytical one (among other things, a particular emphases on function words and the nature of fusion on verb phrases)? And it seems to me that mophologically complex forms deriving from analytic nature (in English and other Germanic and Romance languages) are still simply of a mild fusion, rather than to term as fusional ones, while the highest degree of isolations are only in those languages to term something as analytic languages. Correct?
- by Maunus: Linguists actually don't really use the isolating/fusional /polysynthetic/ agglutinating division any more because it was never well defined and doesn't really tell us alot about a language's general properties. So there is no list of definitions for each of those - they ar more like prototypical categories. Usually the prototype of Polysynthetic languages are languages that can incorporate different kinds of noun phrases, and adverbial-type semantic content into the verb and that can have words (in the sense of single stress units with not freedom to move morphemes around) that contain all of the verbs core arguments (object/subject) and some of the non-core arguments as well (indirect/second object/adverbial phrases/locatives etc.). Regarding Otomí the question is whether the morphemes that agree with the object and subject are considered to be bound or free morphemes. Palancar consider them to be clitics- i.e. semifree and that would mean that the language could be said to be synthetic and agglutinating but not really polysynthetic - his argument is that the morphemes are sometimes form a stress unit with other words that are not the verb. I consider however that they are probably bound because they always occur in the same position relative to the verb and to me the stress shift is not that convincing. Rather I think Otomi has another character that is characteristic of many polysynthetic languages - namely that the relative order of the free nominal consituents is very free - i.e. the object can come both before or after the verb depending mostly on its pragmatic status as either new or old information. Regarding English I think it is still definitely fusional (as are all indo-european languages to varying degree) more than analytic - there are many frequently used verb and noun endings (that fuse phonetically with the root) and many verbs and nouns that form inflect by ablaut - very fusional traits. It is no where near as isolating/analytic as e.g. mandarin or thai.·Maunus·ƛ· 03:33, 11 December 2010 (UTC)
- by Nevill Fernando: I changed a word, which is in bold now. On “Linguists actually don't really use the isolating/fusional/polysynthetic/agglutinating division any more because it was never well defined and doesn't really tell us alot about a language's general properties”, it doesn’t seem to have problems, other than that we do not have a correct classifying schema.
- On “In a polysynthetic language morphemes are relatively more bound and their sequence is governed by morphological rules. In isolating language they are relatively more free and their sequence is governed by syntactic rules”, it seems to me that every language, including polysynthetic languages, is governed by syntactic rules to which the morphological rules are secondary in terms of their synthetic analyses (i.e., morphological inflections can take in isolation, which is not mandatory but the sequential squeezes in syntheses).
- On “Regarding English I think it is still definitely fusional”, right (all the language have morphosyntax fusion). But the question is then whether there are any languages whose constituencies are more in isolation than Germanic and Romance languages, to classify as non-synthetic or analytic ones. You may know.
- by Maunus: There is no correct or incorrect analysis in typology, just ones that are more or less informative. the problem with the agglutinative/synthetic/analytic/fusional scheme is that it is purely descriptive - it doesn't correlate with any other important grammatical features - there for it is only marginally interesting for most linguitsic theoreticians.As for your second point that depends entirely on which syntactic/grammatical theory you subscribe. I tend to see syntax as something that is separate form morphology - and to see polysynthetic languages as having complex morphological rules and more less complex syntactic rules - whereas more analytic languages are the opposite. Some theories consider morphology and syntax to be one thing as it is simply rules for sequencing bits of meaning.
- I gave a couple of common examples of truly isolating languages - Mandarin and Thai - others are Mazatec of Mexico and many others that allow only monosyllabic words.·Maunus·ƛ· 04:31, 11 December 2010 (UTC)