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Polysynthetic language

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Polysynthetic languages are highly synthetic languages, i.e., languages in which words are composed of many morphemes.

Not all languages can be easily classified as being completely polysynthetic. Morpheme and word boundaries are not always clear cut, and languages may be highly synthetic in one area but less synthetic in other areas (compare verbs and nouns in Southern Athabaskan languages).

Contents

Definition

The degree of synthesis refers to the morpheme-to-word ratio. Languages with more than one morpheme per word are synthetic. Polysynthetic languages lie at the extreme end of the synthesis continuum with a very high number of morphemes per word (at the other extreme are isolating or analytic languages with only one morpheme per word). These highly synthetic languages often have very long words that correspond to complete sentences in less synthetic languages.

Many, if not most, languages regarded as polysynthetic include agreement with object arguments as well as subject arguments in verbs. Incorporation (primarily noun incorporation) has been an issue that has historically been confused with polysynthesis and also used as a criterion for its definition. Incorporation refers to the phenomenon where lexical morphemes (or lexemes) are combined together to form a single word. Not all polysynthetic languages are incorporating, and not all incorporating languages are polysynthetic.

A contrast was made by some linguists between oligosynthetic and polysynthetic languages, where the former term was applied to languages with relatively few morphemes. The distinction is not widely used today.

Mark C. Baker has tried to define polysynthesis as a syntactic macroparameter within Noam Chomsky's "principles and parameters" programme. He defines polysynthetic languages as languages that conform to the syntactic rule that he calls the "polysynthesis parameter," and that as a result show a special set of morphological and syntactic properties. The polysynthesis parameter states that all phrasal heads must be marked with either agreement morphemes of their direct argument or else incorporate these arguments in that head. This definition of polysynthesis leaves out some languages that are commonly stated as examples of polysynthetic languages (such as Inuktitut), but can be seen to be the reason of certain common structural properties in others such as Mohawk and Nahuatl. Baker's definition, probably because of its heavy dependence on Chomskian theory, has not been accepted as a general definition of polysynthesis.

Origin of term

The term "polysynthesis" was probably first used in a linguistic sense by Peter Stephen DuPonceau (a.k.a. Pierre Étienne Duponceau) in 1819 as a term to describe American languages:

Three principal results have forcibly struck my mind... They are the following:
  1. That the American languages in general are rich in grammatical forms, and that in their complicated construction, the greatest order, method and regularity prevail
  2. That these complicated forms, which I call polysynthesis, appear to exist in all those languages, from Greenland to Cape Horn.
  3. That these forms appear to differ essentially from those of the ancient and modern languages of the old hemisphere. (Duponceau 1819:xxii-xxiii)
The manner in which words are compounded in that particular mode of speech, the great number and variety of ideas which it has the power of expressing in one single word; particularly by means of the verbs; all these stamp its character for abundance, strength, and comprehensiveness of expression, in such a manner, that those accidents must be considered as included in the general descriptive term polysynthetic. (Duponceau 1819:xxvii)
I have explained elsewhere what I mean by a polysynthetic or syntactic construction of language.... It is that in which the greatest number of ideas are comprised in the least number of words. This is done principally in two ways. 1. By a mode of compounding locutions which is not confined to joining two words together, as in the Greek, or varying the inflection or termination of a radical word as in the most European languages, but by interweaving together the most significant sounds or syllables of each simple word, so as to form a compound that will awaken in the mind at once all the ideas singly expressed by the words from which they are taken. 2. By an analogous combination of various parts of speech, particularly by means of the verb, so that its various forms and inflections will express not only the principal action, but the greatest possible number of the moral ideas and physical objects connected with it, and will combine itself to the greatest extent with those conceptions which are the subject of other parts of speech, and in other languages require to be expressed by separate and distinct words.... Their most remarkable external appearance is that of long polysyllabic words, which being compounded in the manner I have stated, express much at once.(Duponceau 1819:xxx-xxxi)

The term was made popular in a posthumously published work by Wilhelm von Humboldt (1836).

The terms synthetic and polysynthetic were first used in the modern sense by Edward Sapir in the 1920s.

Affixally and compositionally polysynthetic languages

Recent linguistic work by Johanna Mattissen suggests that polysynthetic languages can be fundamentally divided into two typological categories, which differ in the way in which morphemes are organised to form words.

Affixal polysynthesis

Affixally polysynthetic languages, as the name suggests, are those that use only non-root-bound morphemes to express concepts that in less synthetic languages are expressed by separate words such as adjectives and adverbs. They also use these bound morphemes to make other nouns and verbs from a basic root, which can lead to very complex word forms without non-lexical suffixes. These bound morphemes often relate to body parts, other essential items of the culture of the language's speakers or features of the landscape where the language is spoken. Deiectics and other spatial and temporal relations are also very common among these bound morphemes in affixally polysynthetic languages. [1]

Affixally polysynthetic languages do not use noun incorporation or verb serialisation, since this would violate the rule concerning the number of roots allowable per word. Many have a weak distinction between nouns and verbs, which allows affixes to be used to translate these parts of speech.[2]

Affixally polysynthetic languages may have a word structure that is either:

  1. templatic, which means there are a fixed number of slots for different elements, which are fixed in their position and order relative to each other[3].
  2. scope ordered, which means there exist forms not restricted in complexity and length. The components are fixed in their relative scope and are thus ordered according to the intended meaning. Usually in this case a few components are actually fixed, such as the root in Eskimo-Aleut languages.[4]

Examples of affixally polysynthetic languages include Inuktitut, Cherokee, Athabaskan languages, the Chimakuan languages (Quileute) and the Wakashan languages.[5]

Compositional polysynthesis

In compositionally polysynthetic languages, there usually can be more than one free morpheme per word, which gives rise to noun incorporation and verb serialisation to create extremely long words[6]. Although they tend to be of much less importance than in affixally polysynthetic languages, compositionally polysynthetic languages tend to have as many of the bound affixes as purely affixal polysynthetic languages.

It is believed that all affixally polysynthetic languages evolved from compositionally polysynthetic ones via the conversion of morphemes that could stand on their own into affixes.[7]

Because they possess a greater number of free morphemes, compositionally polysynthetic languages are much more prone than affixally polysynthetic ones to evolve into simpler languages with less complex words. On the other hand, they are generally easier to distinguish from non-polysynthetic languages than affixally polysynthetic languages.[citation needed]

Examples of compositionally polysynthetic languages include Classical Ainu, Sora, Chukchi, Tonkawa, and most Amazonian languages[8].

Examples

Chukchi

An example from Chukchi, a polysynthetic, incorporating, and agglutinating language:

Təmeyŋəlevtpəγtərkən.
t-ə-meyŋ-ə-levt-pəγt-ə-rkən
1.SG.SUBJ-great-head-hurt-PRES.1
'I have a fierce headache.'   (Skorik 1961: 102)

Temeyngelevtpeγterken has a 5:1 morpheme-to-word ratio with 3 incorporated lexical morphemes (meyŋ 'great', levt 'head', pəγt 'ache').

Classical Ainu

From Classical Ainu, another polysynthetic, incorporating, and agglutinating language:

      Usaopuspe aejajkotujmasiramsujpa.
      usa-opuspea-e-jaj-ko-tujma-si-ram-suj-pa
      various-rumors1-APL-REFL-far-REFL-heart-sway-ITER
      'I keep swaying my heart afar and toward myself over various rumors.' (i.e., I wonder about various rumors.)
(Shibatani 1990: 72)

Distribution of polysynthetic languages

Polysynthetic languages have arisen in many places around the world. The list below gives some families that are stereotypically polysynthetic, although some members of the families may be less so than others.

Siberia

North America

Central America

South America

Caucasus

South Asia

Oceania

Bibliography

  1. ^ Mattissen, Johanna; Dependent-head synthesis in Nivkh: a contribution to a typology of polysynthesis; p. 281. ISBN 1588114767
  2. ^ Mattisson, Joanna; "On the Ontology and Diachronisis of Polysynthesis" in Wunderlich, Dieter (editor); Advances in the theory of the lexicon; p. 315. ISBN 3110190192
  3. ^ Mattissen,; Dependent-head synthesis in Nivkh; p. 286
  4. ^ Mattisen, Dependent-head synthesis in Nivkh; p. 287
  5. ^ Andronis, Mary; Chicago Linguistic Society #38; p. 386. ISBN 0914203630
  6. ^ Mattissen,; Dependent-head synthesis in Nivkh; pp. 281-290
  7. ^ See Mattisson; "On the Ontology and Diachronisis of Polysynthesis" in Wunderlich (editor); Advances in the theory of the lexicon; p. 337
  8. ^ Mattissen,; Dependent-head synthesis in Nivkh; pp. 281-290
  • Baker, Mark. (1988). Incorporation: A theory of grammatical function changing.
  • Baker, Mark. (1996). The polysynthesis parameter.
  • Boas, Franz. (1911). Handbook of American Indian languages (Part 1).
  • Brighton, D. G. (n.d. [before 1893]). Polysynthesis and incorporation as characteristics of American languages.
  • Comrie, Bernard. (1989). Language universals and linguistic typology (2nd ed.). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
  • Duponceau, Peter S. (1819). Report of the corresponding secretary to the committee, of his progress in the investigation committed to him of the general character and forms of the languages of the American Indians: Read, 12th Jan. 1819. In Transactions of the Historical & Literary Committee of the American Philosophical Society, held at Philadelphia, for promoting useful knowledge (Vol. 1, pp. xvii-xlvi).
  • Evans, Nicholas; & Sasse, Hans-Jürgen. (2002). Problems of polysynthesis. Berlin: Akademie Verlag. ISBN 3-05-003732-6.
  • Fortescue, Michael. (1983). A comparative manual of affixes for the Inuit dialects of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska. Meddelelser om Grømland, Man & society (No. 4). Copenhagen: Nyt Nordisk Forlag.
  • Fortescue, Michael. (1994). Morphology, polysynthetic. In R. E. Asher & J. M. Y. Simpson (Eds.), The Encyclopedia of language and linguistics.
  • Hewitt, John N. B. (1893). Polysynthesis in the languages of the American Indians. American Anthropologist, 6, 381-407.
  • von Humboldt, Wilhelm. (1836). Über die Verschiedenheit des menschichen Sprachbaues und ihren Einfluß auf die geistige Entwicklung des Menschengeschlechts. Berlin: Königliche Akadamie der Wissenschaften.
  • Jacobson, Steven A. (1977). A grammatical sketch of Siberian Yupik Eskimo (pp. 2–3). Fairbanks: Alaska Native Languages Center, University of Alaska.
  • Jelinek, Eloise. (1984). Empty categories, case, and configurationality. Natural language and linguistics theory, 2, 39-76.
  • de Reuse, Willem J. Central Siberian Yupik as a polysynthetic language.
  • Sapir, Edward. (1911). Problem of noun incorporation in American Indian languages. American Anthropologist, 13, 250-282.
  • Osborne, C.R., 1974. The Tiwi language. Canberra: AIAS
  • Sapir, Edward. (1921). Language: An introduction to the study of speech (Chap. 6). New York: Harcourt, Brace & World.
  • Schleicher, August. (1848). Zur vergleichenden Sprachengeschichte.
  • Shibatani, Masayoshi. (1990). The languages of Japan. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Shopen, Timothy. (1985). Language typology and syntactic description: Grammatical categories and the lexicon (Vol. 3). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Skorik, P. Ja. (1961). Grammatika čukotskogo jazyka: Fonetika i morfologija imennyx častej reči (Vol. 1, p. 102). Leningrad: Nauka.
  • Whitney, William D. (1875). The life and growth of language.

 

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