morphological typology

Morphological typology refers to classifying languages in accordance with how they assemble morphemes into words. Note that while the definitions below might sound like discrete categories, real-life languages are complex and are more likely to sit somewhere on a spectrum between these different classifications. So, without further ado, the main types of typologies you’ll hear about are:

  • Analytic: These are languages which use word order and grammatical particles (like prepositions, determiners, etc.) to convey how different words in a sentence relate to each other, rather than inflecting the words. English and Chinese are both considered to be analytic languages (although English was traditionally analysed as a fusional language, as Old English was, and Modern English still has relics of that, like our pronouns).
    • Isolating: These are languages where, almost all the time, separate morphemes are expressed with separate words. These types of languages generally don’t use affixes to derive words from other words, and don’t have compound words either (so neither English nor Chinese are really isolating). Some examples of languages that are considered close to purely isolating are Vietnamese (especially its colloquial register) and Igbo.
  • Synthetic: These languages use inflections (like verb conjugation, noun cases, etc.) and/or affixation to convey how words in a sentence relate to each other.
    • Agglutinative: In agglutinative languages, each affix added to a word adds one unit of meaning. Affixes also tend to be pronounced the same regardless of what other morphemes are next to them (hence these languages are not “fusional”). Some examples include Quechua, Indo­nes­ian, Tamil, Uralic languages and languages of the Altaic sprachbund.
    • Fusional: In fusional languages, an affix tends to have multiple units of meaning all bound together inseparably. For example, the ending on the end of comí in Spanish denotes the first person and singular number and preterite tense all fused into the one ending; even if you want to change just one of those things, you have to change the entire ending. Some examples of fusional languages include German, the Rom­ance languages, Greek, Russian, Hindi and the Semitic languages.
    • Polysynthetic: These are ultra-synthetic languages that combine multiple stems as well as bound morphemes into single words, resulting in what seem to English speakers like “sentence-words”. Some examples include Nahuatl, Mohawk, Greenlandic, Tiwi and Ainu.

Over time, languages tend to drift from one category to another, generally in the order isolating → agglutinative → fusional → isolating. That is, over time independent particles tend to get “stuck” to words as bound morphemes, then they tend to “fuse” with neighbouring morphemes creating morphemes with multiple units of meaning, and then they get compressed so tightly they fuse into the word stem or get lost in sound changes or something like that until you’re back at a language that has mostly isolated words. But again, this is just a general tendency and real-life languages are messy, etc. etc.