Long and Short Words: Language Typology

The smallest unit of meaning in a language
is called a “morpheme”. Let’s take a lovely English word, “inconceivable”.
There are three morphemes there: conceive, which in this context means to form
something in your head. Now you could break that down further if we were in old Latin,
but in English that is a morpheme: con and ceive don’t mean anything on their own here. Then we’ve got -able, which means the possibility
of something. “Conceivable”. We can think about this. And then we’ve got in-, which negates it.
“Inconceivable”. We cannot possibly think about this. Different languages have very different approaches
on how to deal with morphemes, and those approaches are the reason why some languages have many
short words, and others have long structures that are frequently difficult for adults learning
a new language to deal with. There’s a spectrum, and it stretches from
“analytic” to “synthetic”. Over on the analytical side, there are the
isolating languages, like Chinese and Vietnamese. Here, each morpheme is usually an entirely
separate word. Assembling a sentence in one of these languages means you’re mostly picking
and choosing words and putting them next to each other. Next along this spectrum, there are the agglutinative
languages, like Turkish and Inuktitut. “Agglutinative” – it’s a lovely word – has the same Latin
roots as the word “glue”: you’re gluing words together from their component parts.
Rather than picking extra words to add to your sentence, you’re adding prefixes or
suffixes to words that are already there. Depending on the language, you might add affixes
for tense, person, number, belonging, possession, or even things like whether an action was
deliberate or not. Next up are the fusional languages. They work
in the same way — assembling bits to make a full word with all the meaning you want
— but now the bits you’re adding affect the parts you’ve got already, tweaking how
it looks or how it sounds. Not only that, but each of the bits you’re adding can have
multiple different meanings attached to it: tense, number, person, all sorts of things
can be coded with just one sound attached to a word. Take “hablo” in Spanish. That
-o morpheme? It means first person, singular, present, indicative. That’s a lot of meaning
in a very short sound. And then, all the way over here, are the polysynthetic
languages, basically the really, really extra-synthetic languages. You’ll find this in Algonquian
languages, up in the cold parts of North America. This is where you can combine potentially
a dozen or more morphemes, enough for a whole sentence, a whole coherent thought, into one
long word. And it really is a word: the individual parts can’t be split apart and survive on
their own. The morphemes you’re using might be agglutinative, in separate blocks, or they
might be fusional, affecting everything around them, but at any rate you have an entire sentence
in the form of one beautiful, long, interconnected word. Now here’s the thing: most English speakers
consider polysynthetic languages to be the crazy side of language. It seems incredibly
complicated. And for adults trying to learn a polysynthetic language, it is incredibly
confusing. But children may actually find these languages easier to learn: because the
words are long and intertwined, and each bit affects another, there’s more redundancy
there. If you mishear or misunderstand one part, you’re much more likely to be able
to work out what is meant from how the words around it have changed. It’s important to remember that like many
things in life, this is a spectrum. There aren’t many languages that fit neatly into
any one of these categories. English is actually a fairly isolating language, down at this
end of the scale — but it’s still generally classified as synthetic, because we’ve got
many, many words like “inconceivable”. And the family that English belongs to, Indo-European,
is pretty synthetic, too. And while this is the conventional approach
to classifying languages, it does have a few problems. It distinguishes loads of different
categories on this side of the spectrum, but it lumps all the isolating languages together.
That’s probably because most of the linguists who set up the classification — particularly
the early ones — were European, so they concentrated on the differences that made sense to them. Languages are messy things that shift and
change over time, between places and people. Categorising them can be useful for research,
and it tells you a few things about the possibilities of what the human brain can do, but once you
start to file them away you start to realise that, like most everything about human communication,
they really don’t fit into neat little boxes. [Translating these subtitles? Add your name here!]

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