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A synthetic language, in linguistic typology, is a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio. This linguistic classification is largely independent of morpheme-usage classifications (such as fusional, agglutinative, etc.) although there is a common tendency for agglutinative languages to exhibit synthetic properties.
Synthetic and isolating languages
Synthetic languages are frequently contrasted with isolating languages. It is more accurate to conceive of languages as existing on a continuum, with strictly isolating (consistently one morpheme per word) at one end and highly polysynthetic (in which a single word may contain as much information as an entire English sentence) at the other extreme. Synthetic languages tend to lie around the middle of this scale.
Synthetic languages are numerous and well-attested, the most commonly cited being Indo-European languages such as German, Portuguese, Russian, Polish and Czech, virtually all the Altaic languages (comprising Turkish, Mongolian and the Tungusic languages), the Uralic languages (including Finnish, Estonian, and Hungarian) and Korean, as well as many languages of the Americas, including Navajo, Nahuatl, Mohawk and Quechua.
Forms of synthesis
There are several ways in which a language can exhibit synthetic characteristics:
- German: Luftkissenfahrzeug "air-cushion-travel-machine" = "hovercraft"
- Greek: uperholisterolaimia (υπερχοληστερολαιμία) "overmuch/high-cholesterol-blood" = "hypercholesterolemia"
- Japanese: teishaeki (停車駅) "stop-car-station" = "station where the train stops"
- Polish: przystanek "little-stand-beside" = "bus stop"
- Finnish: pikakaurahiutaleannos "quick-oat-flake-ration" = "a serving of quick oatmeal"
- English: unthinkably = "not-think-possible-(adverb)"
- Nahuatl: ocaltizquiya "already-(she)-him-bathe-would" = "she would have bathed him"
- Japanese: miseraregatai (見せられ難い) "see-causative-passive-difficult" = "it's difficult to be shown (this)"
- Finnish: juoksentelisinkohan "run-erratic motion-conditional-I-question-casual" = "I wonder if I should run around (aimlessly)"
- Finnish: hiutaleannos = "flake-ration"; hiuta+le has the components hiutua "to thin" and -le "a small thing produced by the action", and ann+os is derived from antaa "to give" and -os "a mass transferred or made by the action".
Degrees of synthesis
In order to demonstrate the "continuum" nature of the isolating-synthetic-polysynthetic classification, some examples are shown below:
Tahitian: Ua marere te manu na te ara means "The bird flew off into the distance." Virtually every word is a stand-alone morpheme.
English: "He travelled by hovercraft on the sea." Largely isolating, but travelled and hovercraft each have two morphemes per word, the former being an example of relational synthesis (inflection), and the latter of derivational synthesis (derivation).
Japanese: Watashitachi ni totte, kono naku kodomo no shashin wa miseraregatai mono desu (私たちにとって、この泣く子供の写真は見せられ難いものです。) means strictly literally, "In our case, these pictures of children crying are things that are difficult to be shown," approximately We cannot bear being shown these pictures of children crying in more idiomatic English. In the example, virtually every word has more than one morpheme and some have up to five (the particles ni, no, wa are enclitic case markers, i. e. they are phonologically part of the previous word).
Finnish: Käyttäytyessään tottelemattomasti oppilas saa jälki-istuntoa means "Should he/she behave in an insubordinate manner, the student will get detention." Practically every word is derived and/or inflected, and one word can be considered polysynthetic.
Mohawk: Washakotya'tawitsherahetkvhta'se means "He ruined her dress" (strictly, "He made the thing that one puts on one's body ugly for her"). One word expresses the idea that would be conveyed in an entire sentence in a non-polysynthetic language.
Oligosynthetic languages are a theoretical notion created by Benjamin Whorf with no known examples existing in natural languages. Such languages would be functionally synthetic, but make use of a very limited array of morphemes (perhaps just a few hundred). Whorf proposed that Nahuatl was oligosynthetic, but this has since been discounted by most linguists.