The sounds a language contains can go a long way toward giving that language a specific “feel”. But the very structure of the words themselves creates another kind of feel. Think of German, with its immensely long words full of consonants. Compare that to Chinese words, short and to the point, but combined in numerous ways to make new phrases. Latin has tables of declensions, as any student knows, while English gets by with only a few variations in its word forms.
All of this comes under the field of morphology, which is, in essence, a parallel to phonology. Where phonology is concerned with a language’s sound inventory, morphology goes up to the next step: the building blocks of words. Not necessarily the words themselves, as we shall see. But first, we need to meet the morpheme.
A phoneme, as we know, is the most basic unit of sound distinguished in a language. By analogy, then, a morpheme is the basic unit of grammar. This may surprise some people. After all, aren’t words the smallest part of grammar?
Well, sometimes. Words can be made of a single morpheme, and English has plenty of examples: dog, walk, I. These are called free morphemes, because they can stand alone as words in their own right. In contrast, the English plural ending -s and the past tense suffix -ed can’t be alone. They have to be attached to other morphemes to create a legitimate word, so we call them bound morphemes. Thus, the English sentence I walked the dogs has four words, but a total of six morphemes.
Languages can divide up their morphemes, free and bound, in numerous ways, but they can all be defined in two dimensions. First, how many morphemes are there in a word? Or, to put it another way, what’s the ratio of free to bound?
Isolating vs. Polysynthetic
This distinction is an easy one to think about. Look at English words like predestination or internationalization. They’re big words, and they have a lot of morphemes. “Internationalization”, as an example, has the free (“root”) morpheme nation surrounded by the bound morphemes inter-, -al, -ize, and -ation, for a total of five.
Not every language is like English, though. Many, instead, only really allow one or two morphemes per word, preferring to build their larger “words” as phrases constructed from multiple free roots. The Chinese languages are well-known examples of this style. They, and those like them, are called isolating languages, since their words are “isolated”, or able to stand alone.
The other extreme is exemplified by languages such as those of the Eskimo and Inuit peoples. Here, words can be constructed to mean entire sentences, and they are full of bound morphemes. Not only is the marker for tense stuck to the verb, but verbs and nouns themselves are welded together, and the whole thing becomes a single word. To demonstrate, I’ll copy Wikipedia’s example, the Yupik word tuntussuqatarniksaitengqiggtuq, meaning “He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer.” Wow. (By the way, this is one reason for the linguistic urban legend that the Eskimos have a hundred words for snow. Sure they do, if you count something that means “it’s going to snow tomorrow morning” as a word. But they certainly don’t have that many free morphemes that convey the meaning of “snow”.) Languages like these, where there are often many morphemes in a word, most of them bound, not allowed to stand by themselves, are called polysynthetic languages.
Of course, a language can be in the middle of this spectrum. Isolating versus polysynthetic isn’t a binary choice. English, after all, has plenty of cases of both isolation and (mild) polysynthesis. Indeed, most of the more common languages of the world fall near the muddy center of the continuum. Chinese, of course, is very isolating. English is kind of right in the middle. Turkish and Finnish are quite polysynthetic, though more of a type that we’ll see below. French manages to put one foot in either world, with a highly isolating written language that’s often spoken like it’s polysynthetic.
Conlangs tend to follow their authors’ leanings. Some like the exotic allure of polysynthetic languages, while others choose the stark simplicity of the isolating. Most, though, are somewhere in between, like the native tongues of their creators. Certainly, an auxiliary language shouldn’t be nearly as polysynthetic as Inuktitut. But that same style can definitely give an alien vibe to an otherwise simple language. An isolating style, on the other hand, could conjure up images of the East, or of Pacific pidgins and creoles.
Agglutinating vs. Fusional
For those languages that have them (purely isolating languages need not apply), bound morphemes are often used to indicate grammatical relationships. Again, we can look at English: plural -s, past tense -ed, etc. Most of these have a specific meaning, but not all. On verbs, -s marks the third person, but only the singular version: compare “he walks” and “they walk”. This is the second “dimension” of a language, and it asks, “How much meaning does a bound morpheme have?”
Like above, there are two paths we can choose. With a few exceptions (like verbal -s), English takes the “one morpheme, one meaning” approach. Thus, it’s fair to say that English is an agglutinating language. Turkish is a popular example of taking this to the extreme, as Turkish verbs can have a string of suffixes: one for person, one for tense, and so on. German’s interminable compounds are much the same, but with more “meaning” for each morpheme beyond mere grammatical marking.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have the fusional languages including, for instance, the Romance family. Take the Spanish word amó, which we can translate as “she loved”. We’ve got a root am- (amar in its dictionary form) and a suffix -ó, and that’s it. But we know that it’s in the third person, past tense, and singular. (Spanish doesn’t distinguish gender in verb conjugation, though, so it could equally mean “he loved”.) Three separate meanings “fused” into a single suffix. And we know this by looking at a Spanish conjugation table. Change the person to first, and the word must become amé. Plural instead of singular? You have to say amaron. Want it to be in the future, rather than the past? It’s now amará. Alter any one part, and you need a whole new morpheme.
Like in the first case above, few languages fall on the absolute extremes of the agglutinative/fusional spectrum. English is mostly agglutinative, Spanish mostly fusional, but both have exceptions. The fusional type, though, seems a bit more popular in Europe (as you can see from the number of languages with declensions and inflections and make it stop), meaning that it’s better represented at the top of the chart. But even Europe has its agglutinative sect: English and Finnish, among others. Elsewhere, it really depends.
For conlangs, it still depends. Westerners are familiar with fusional languages, but agglutinating has a mechanical appeal, and it’s definitely a lot easier to work with. Auxiliary languages might be best served by a hybrid approach, where there are mostly agglutinative elements, but a few fusional aspects added where they can simplify things (like English’s verbal -s). (And if you’re making a purely isolating language, you can completely ignore the whole thing!)
In the next post, we’ll look at Isian and Ardari and how they fit into the two-dimensional world of isolating and fusional and agglutinating and polysynthetic. The results may shock you! Oh, and we’ll also start making actual words in our two conlangs. Yes, finally.