or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, April 23, 2005


The word "synthetic" had a very bad reputation in the '70s. Anything natural was good: wood, metal, wool and cotton fabrics. Anything synthetic was just bad, and not without reason--plastics weren't what they are nowadays.

In linguistics, though, "synthetic" isn't a term of disapprobation. It simply denotes the method by which words and sentences are formed. A synthetic language is one in which morphemes, or indivisible units of linguistic information, can be cobbled together to form longer words.

The opposite of a synthetic language is an isolating language, in which each word is a morpheme, with no suffixing, prefixing, or other word-joining. The other extreme of a synthetic language is a polysynthetic language, in which a batch of words and linguistic units can be strung together into a single word which carries all the meaning of an entire sentence.

English is, broadly speaking, an isolating language: many of our words are stand-alone morphemes ("Please hand me that box to put this cake in"). As well, word order is crucial--one of the hallmarks of an isolating language. Synthetic languages such as Latin have a much freer word order, because each word carries a grammatical marker which indicates its part of speech. In English, "dog bites man" and "man bites dog" are wholly different sentences, because the placement of each word determines its meaning, but in Latin, the words in the sentence "dog bites man", "canis mordet hominem", can be arranged in almost any order, because each word's ending signifies its grammatical intent. The opposite sentence, "man bites dog", would consist of the words "homo mordet canem"--again, in almost any order.

However, in English we can and often do string elements together to form a single word which carries a great deal of information. "Uninterruptedly", to grab an example out of thin air: "not" plus "interrupt" plus "adjectival marker which also happens to be past-tense verb marker" plus "adverbial marker". (And "interrupt" itself is a compound of two ideas--"between" and "break".) We commonly use suffixes, prefixes, and other morphemes to alter words; we do it all the time, when we make words plural or possessive ("Michelle's dresses"). In this way, English has aspects of a synthetic language.

English is clearly not a polysynthetic language, but it is nonetheless possible to speak an entire sentence with a single word. The spoken language has evolved a manner of stressing a word which constitutes a sentence, rich in meaning; not only all the information of a sentence, but also an expression of how the speaker feels about the subject. In the absence of a voice recording it will be a little difficult to express this precisely, but it's a roller-coaster of an inflection: the word (even a single syllable) starts on a relatively high pitch, drops down, and then slides back up in a sort of melisma of surprise, delight, or shock. "Cute!", the speaker might say in this fashion, meaning "He/she/that is extremely cute!". "Ears!", I have said sotto voce to Jim on more than one occasion, denoting "That person over there has got just about the biggest pair of ears I've ever seen!"

It's not quite polysynthesis, but it will do nicely, I think.


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