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  • The smallest unit of meaning in a language is called a “morpheme”. Let’s take a

  • lovely English word, “inconceivable”. There are three morphemes there:

  • conceive, which in this context means to form something in your head. Now you could break

  • that down further if we were in old Latin, but in English that is a morpheme: con and

  • ceive don’t mean anything on their own here.

  • Then weve got -able, which means the possibility of something. “Conceivable”. We can think

  • about this.

  • And then we've got in-, which negates it. “Inconceivable”. We cannot possibly think

  • about this.

  • Different languages have very different approaches on how to deal with morphemes, and those approaches

  • are the reason why some languages have many short words, and others have long structures

  • that are frequently difficult for adults learning a new language to deal with.

  • There’s a spectrum, and it stretches fromanalytictosynthetic”.

  • Over on the analytical side, there are the isolating languages, like Chinese and Vietnamese.

  • Here, each morpheme is usually an entirely separate word. Assembling a sentence in one

  • of these languages means youre mostly picking and choosing words and putting them next to

  • each other.

  • Next along this spectrum, there are the agglutinative languages, like Turkish and Inuktitut. “Agglutinative

  • - it's a lovely word - has the same Latin roots as the wordglue”: youre gluing

  • words together from their component parts. Rather than picking extra words to add to

  • your sentence, youre adding prefixes or suffixes to words that are already there.

  • Depending on the language, you might add affixes for tense, person, number, belonging, possession,

  • or even things like whether an action was deliberate or not.

  • Next up are the fusional languages. They work in the same way -- assembling bits to make

  • a full word with all the meaning you want -- but now the bits youre adding affect

  • the parts youve got already, tweaking how it looks or how it sounds. Not only that,

  • but each of the bits youre adding can have multiple different meanings attached to it:

  • tense, number, person, all sorts of things can be coded with just one sound attached

  • to a word. Takehabloin Spanish. That -o morpheme? It means first person, singular,

  • present, indicative. That’s a lot of meaning in a very short sound.

  • And then, all the way over here, are the polysynthetic languages, basically the really, really extra-synthetic

  • languages. Youll find this in Algonquian languages, up in the cold parts of North America.

  • This is where you can combine potentially a dozen or more morphemes, enough for a whole

  • sentence, a whole coherent thought, into one long word. And it really is a word: the individual

  • parts can’t be split apart and survive on their own. The morphemes youre using might

  • be agglutinative, in separate blocks, or they might be fusional, affecting everything around

  • them, but at any rate you have an entire sentence in the form of one beautiful, long, interconnected

  • word.

  • Now here’s the thing: most English speakers consider polysynthetic languages to be the

  • crazy side of language. It seems incredibly complicated. And for adults trying to learn

  • a polysynthetic language, it is incredibly confusing. But children may actually find

  • these languages easier to learn: because the words are long and intertwined, and each bit

  • affects another, there’s more redundancy there. If you mishear or misunderstand one

  • part, youre much more likely to be able to work out what is meant from how the words

  • around it have changed.

  • It’s important to remember that like many things in life, this is a spectrum. There

  • aren’t many languages that fit neatly into any one of these categories. English is actually

  • a fairly isolating language, down at this end of the scale -- but it’s still generally

  • classified as synthetic, because weve got many, many words likeinconceivable”.

  • And the family that English belongs to, Indo-European, is pretty synthetic, too.

  • And while this is the conventional approach to classifying languages, it does have a few

  • problems. It distinguishes loads of different categories on this side of the spectrum, but

  • it lumps all the isolating languages together. That’s probably because most of the linguists

  • who set up the classification -- particularly the early ones -- were European, so they concentrated

  • on the differences that made sense to them.

  • Languages are messy things that shift and change over time, between places and people.

  • Categorising them can be useful for research, and it tells you a few things about the possibilities

  • of what the human brain can do, but once you start to file them away you start to realise

  • that, like most everything about human communication, they really don’t fit into neat little boxes.

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The smallest unit of meaning in a language is called a “morpheme”. Let’s take a

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B1 INT UK synthetic language spectrum isolating sentence adding

Long and Short Words: Language Typology

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    Dmitry posted on 2016/06/18
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