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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 we’ve 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 from “analytic” to “synthetic”.
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 you’re 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 word “glue”: you’re gluing
words together from their component parts. Rather than picking extra words to add to
your sentence, you’re 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 you’re adding affect
the parts you’ve got already, tweaking how it looks or how it sounds. Not only that,
but each of the bits you’re 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. Take “hablo” in 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. You’ll 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 you’re 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
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, you’re 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 we’ve got many, many words like “inconceivable”.
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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Long and Short Words: Language Typology

261 タグ追加 保存
Dmitry 2016 年 6 月 18 日 に公開
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