Language Typology: Analytic versus Synthetic Languages

There are mainly two kinds of language classifications in contemporary linguistics – genealogical (sometimes referred to as genetic classification) and typological classification. The former tentatively groups all human languages into so-called broader language families according to their degree of (diachronic) relatedness such as, for instance, the group of Indo-European languages, which includes English, Dutch, German, Swedish but also Norwegian.

The latter, the typological classification, subcategorizes human languages into types according their respective structural characteristics. In this section, we primarily focus on types morphological patterns and, thus, on different typologies of word-formations.

The juxtaposition of analytic languages (the term is used synonymously with isolating languages) on the one hand and synthetic (or inflecting) languages on the other is decisive in this context.

An analytic language is one in which each word is – prototypically – composed of only a single morpheme, or in which each morpheme tends to be realized as a single, isolated word, not as a mere affix. Accordingly, in analytic languages, words are seemingly immune from inflectional affixation of any kind: specific grammatical particles and words, instead of inflection, are used to indicate syntactic relations. Classical Chinese and Vietnamese as an even better example, are commonly considered as highly isolating languages. Both ultimately lack derivational as well as inflectional morphology. Neither do we find markers of tense nor of aspect affixed to a word; instead, in classical Chinese and in particular in Vietnamese, the words remain unaffixed root morphemes – both bare and isolated.

In non-analytic languages such as English, grammatical markers of, say, tense are realized as inflectional suffixes of the verb. The suffix “-ed” as in “play-ed” or “ walk-ed” typically indicate that an action is completed. In Chinese, in contrast, the aspectual morpheme is not realized by the suffixation of the morpheme “-ed” to a verb but by a complete isolated and independent word “le” next to it.

Analytic language types are to be contrasted with synthetic language types: Roughly speaking, synthetic (inflecting) languages signify syntactic relations within sentences primarily by means of inflection, that is, with affixed word endings marking such grammatical categories as verb tense, case, and gender. In consequence, a single word in, say, Latin usually consist of a base to which various morphemes can be affixed.

Synthetic languages as Latin, Greek, Sanskrit and – of course – German have a large inventory of inflectional morphemes. Seen from a historical perspective, the inflection system of the English language has faded. To this day, only eight inflectional affixes remained and it is widely assumed among linguists that the still rather elaborate German inflectional system will soon loose its former complexity.