Morphological Typology, or How Language is Like Ice Cream

Language is like ice cream: it’s delicious, it’s addictive, it’s refreshing, and it comes in an enormous number of varieties.

Did you know that in my native Italy, where modern ice cream was invented, it is customarily divided into three major categories, depending on how much milk it contains?

First of all, there’s sherbet: this is the most ancient kind of ice cream, and it’s basically just flavoured ice. It contains no milk. Then there’s the so-called “frutte” (fruits), which, as the name implies, are exclusively fruit-flavoured, and contain some milk. Finally, there’s the “creme” (creams), such as chocolate, vanilla or hazelnut. These are the true kings of ice cream, and contain the most milk of all.

Believe it or not, language is divided in the exact same way, only with morphological complexity (i.e. how many prefixes, suffixes, and word changes they have) instead of milk: language sherbets with little to no morphological complexity are called isolating languages; language frutte, with a moderate amount of morphological complexity, are called fusional languages; and language creme, with lots of morphological complexity, are called agglutinating languages.

Let’s look at each kind in a bit more detail.

Isolating Languages

Isolating languages are the simplest languages as far as morphology goes (which doesn’t mean they’re “simple” or “easy” languages though!). In a purely isolating language, words never change form: verbs don’t conjugate for tense or mood (as in love – loved), and nouns don’t decline for number or case (as in cow – cows) or anything else.

Now you’re probably thinking: “What a nightmare! How are speakers of these languages supposed to know if there’s more than one of something? Or if something happened in the past or will happen in the future?”

The answer to this question is that they use context, or, when that fails, they “cheat” by using special separate words which carry grammatical meaning, much like English suffixes do.

The classic example of an isolating language is Mandarin Chinese, which is also the language with the largest number of speakers in the world. Let’s look at a Chinese sentence to see how it deals with number and tense:

我三年前吃过四十块蛋糕,肚子疼死啦!

wǒ sān nián qián chī guo sìshí kuài dàngāo, dùzi téng sǐ la!

I three year before eat PAST forty slice cake, stomach hurt death PERF.EXCL!1

Three years ago I ate forty slices of cake, my stomach killed me!”

See? With the use of clever little words like guo (which basically means ‘past tense’), there’s no need to conjugate the verb! And the fact that we’re talking about more than one slice of cake is fully conveyed by the number “forty”, relieving the noun of the burden of plural suffixes.

Fusional Languages

The middle children of the linguosphere, fusional languages are probably the most familiar to readers of this blog, and that’s because most European languages, English included, are fusional.

Fusional languages have a moderate amount of prefixes and suffixes, such as the un- in unimportant or the -ed in cooked (collectively called affixes), and other morphological tricks up their sleeves, and they particularly like changing the forms of their words without adding stuff to them (à la goose – geese). What they don’t like doing is adding more than one or two extra pieces to their words, which keeps them small and contained.

“Well, what if a verb is both past and perfect, or a noun both plural and genitive (possessive)?” I hear you ask. Well, fusional languages have a neat trick to deal with these situations, and that is having a single affix or a word change have more than one meaning.

Now, English is kind of the runt of the litter when it comes to fusional languages, and has some peculiarities which make it somewhat of a bad example to use to explain how they work, so I’ll use my native Italian to show you a fusional language in action:

Se Giovanni facesse quelle stramaledette salsiccie, mangeremmo come dei re.

if Giovanni do-3P.SING.PRES.COND those blasted.PL sausage.PL, eat-2P.PL.PRES.SUBJ like of.the.PL king.PL

If Giovanni were to make those blasted sausages, we would eat like kings.”

Look at those suffixes! The suffix -eremmo in mangeremmo means second person, plural, present and subjunctive2. How’s that for multitasking!?

Agglutinating Languages

Remember two sections ago when you were wondering how isolating languages managed to work with no affixes at all? Well, that laughter you heard coming from the back of the room were the agglutinating languages, mocking our puny fusional lack of affixation.

Agglutinating languages love affixes: the more stuff you can stick to a word, the better. They treat their words like daisy-chains, adding affix upon affix, nevermind how long they end up to be. For agglutinating languages, there’s no need for multitasking in affixes, because you can string as many as you like one after another.

An example of an agglutinating language we can find here in Europe is Finnish, which, as everyone knows, is the native language of Santa Claus, or Joulupukki as he’s known up there.

Let’s have a look at some Finnish:

Kirjastoissammekin on ruskeakarhuja!

book-COLL-PL-INESS-2PL-TOO is brown.bear-PL-PART!

We have brown bears in our libraries too!”

Look at that. Eight words in English, three words in Finnish, isn’t that amazing?

The word kirjastoissammekin alone means “in our libraries too”, and can be neatly taken apart like this: kirja-sto-i-ssa-mme-kin “book-collection-plural-in-our-too”. If you don’t find that neat, then I frankly don’t know how to impress you.

Sometimes, agglutinating languages go mad with power and let their words run amok, gobbling up everything they see, including other words. We call these extreme examples of agglutination polysynthetic languages. These mad scientists can incorporate pieces of words inside other words, giving rise to Frankensteinian monstrosities which can carry the meaning of a whole English sentence on their own. Here’s an example from Inuktitut, an Inuit language spoken in Canada:

Qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga

rise-HAB-group-enormous-to-arrive-must-have-FUT-1P.SING

“I’ll have to go to the airport”

More literally, this über-word could be translated as “I will have to arrive at the place where the big rising things are.”

Conclusion

Now that we’ve reached the end of our brief trip through the three morphological types of language, let me quickly go back to my ice cream metaphor to explain an important point about this classification: just as you can mix and match different kinds of ice cream in your cup, languages rarely fit neatly into these categories. Most languages combine characteristics from at least two of these groups, with one being dominant and the others subordinate. For example, it could be argued that English is a fusional language that’s rapidly moving towards becoming isolating; Mandarin Chinese is mostly isolating, but it has some agglutinating characteristics; and Finnish has been known to stray into fusional behaviour from time to time.

The takeaway from this is that things in the world are rarely clear-cut, and language is no exception.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this brief (but wild) jaunt through the various ways languages organise their morphology. Next week, it will be Sabina’s turn again, and this time she will answer the pressing question: what is the relationship between language and writing? Are they the same thing? (SPOILER: They’re not.)

See you then!

Glossing Glossary (Gloss-ary? Anyone?)

The following is a list of the abbreviations I’ve used in the glosses for the examples. You can happily and safely skip this if you’re not interested in what the abbreviations mean.

PERF : perfect

EXCL : exclamative

1-2-3P : first/second/third person

SING : singular

PRES : present

COND : conditional

PL : plural

SUBJ : subjunctive

COLL : collective

INESS : inessive (a case in Finnish)

PART : partitive (a case in Finnish)

HAB : habitual

FUT : future

Notes

  1. By the way, that cool thing in italics I did with the word-by-word translation is called glossing and we use it a lot in linguistics to explain how sentences work in different languages (don’t worry about the PERF.EXCL thing, it doesn’t concern us).

  2. The subjunctive is what we in linguistics call a mood, which can be very roughly understood as the way of the verb of telling the listener how factual the information you’re giving them is. The subjunctive indicates that the information is hypothetical.

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