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DominicX's avatar

Do/why do languages trend away from synthesis over time?

Asked by DominicX (28762points) December 2nd, 2011

Do languages become less synthetic over time? Some languages certainly have; why does this happen?

Synthesis, in terms of linguistics, refers to the morpheme-to-word ratio. A language that is more synthetic has more morphemes per word. In Turkish, for example, one word “gelebileceksin” means “you will be able to come”. It takes us 6 words in English to say that, but 1 in Turkish, thus Turkish is more synthetic than English.

Latin, for example, is decently synthetic. A word like “amaverit” means “he will have loved”. However, over time, as Latin became the Romance languages, it became less synthetic. Words like “habere” (to have) came to be used to express verb tense; instead of one word “domi” meaning “at home”, the word “ad” was used to mean “at” and then word for “home”.

English lost noun cases in favor of word order and prepositions expressing grammatical function; in other words, it lost synthesis.

Why does this happen? Does it ever happen in reverse where a language becomes more synthetic? I can think of no examples, but I don’t know a lot about this in the first place…

I know this question is very “linguistic” and maybe non-Jeruba types will find this boring or confusing, but I’m really trying to find out if this is a real trend and why it happens!

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12 Answers

Tachys's avatar

Sometimes lingusitc systems can be too complex. People get lazy. Language is like a living thing. I think linguistic Darwinism.

DominicX's avatar

@Tachys Well, that’s part of what I’m wondering. A lot of linguists really like to avoid using terms like “complex”, “difficult”, etc. to describe languages, but I’m wondering: is an analytic (non-synthetic) language more efficient than a synthetic one? Does synthesis cause more room for ambiguity? Is a synthetic language better for written language than it is for spoken? Just things to think about…

RealEyesRealizeRealLies's avatar

I don’t know. I can only guess that lacking education for a population may contribute to a lower morpheme to word ratio. Perhaps laziness and slang combine to play their part in it.

That’s one reason I’m pleased with the creation of such facilities as The Urban Dictionary. We no longer need to hijack existing words to express new concepts, bending them out of position. We can easily invent new words. I didThere is an F in Way.

lillycoyote's avatar

Do languages trend away from synthesis over time? And if they do, do some languages have more of a tendency to become less synthetic over time than others? I really don’t know. This seems to be something inherent in the structure of the language itself, whether or not it is synthetic and whether or not it is more likely to become less synthetic over time. Is that the case? I don’t know.

zensky's avatar

Google it – in place of use the search engine Google to find what you are seeking.

DominicX's avatar

@lillycoyote All good questions. I was reading that loss of synthesis often begins when inflections create redundancy with word order or preposition use. If, for example, the Latin word “domi” can mean “at home”, once you start using “ad domi” to mean “at home”, it no longer becomes necessary to inflect “domi” to mean “at home” by itself.

Technically, in English, if you say “I love he” everyone will know what you mean; the word order creates the meaning, so it isn’t really “necessary” to change “he” to “him”, yet that form of inflection remains in English.

@zensky Ha ha ha…

harple's avatar

This is a really good question! I don’t have any answers I’m afraid, but it has got me thinking about the few languages I have experience in. In general, Welsh is not synthetic, but they do have the word “hiraeth” which is very similar to the Brazilian Portuguese word “saudade”, neither of which has a one-word translation, but mean a strong sense of longing, usually related to the country and the heritage of that country… Not proof that either language is more synthetic – more likely a hang-on that may one day also be lost?

JLeslie's avatar

Disclamier: I have never studied the reasons languages change over time, and my answer comes purely from guessing and having little knowledge of languages around the world. I do speak Spanish pretty well and English of course.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the culture of the country or community? I remember once learning that the Japanese tend to not get to the point quickly, they talk around a topic (or that is how it seems to Americans) I assume this means using more words to communicate what they want to say. The Japanese appear to be a very polite culture, obedient, and a lot of emphasis on showing respect.

Maybe also the complexity of the society as the language was developing? Or, the diversity? Maybe the language reflects the society? In English, especially in America, we had people from many cultures and many ESL. Sometimes it takes more words with an ESL person, or even an English speaking person from another land to communicate properly. Look at Fluther, sometimes we need 50 answers to understand what each other is trying to say, and we all speak English. But, this contradicts a little what I said about the Japanese, if indeed it is true the Japanese use many words to describe one thing, because they had been a very homogeneous society for centuries. But, we need someone who speaks the language to confirm what I said about it above anyway.

Also, I remember a jelly once pointing out that Spanish doesn’t have many Engineering words, that is is a rather simple language. I found the comment odd actually. But, then he explained Engineering and many scientific discoveries come out of countries like America and Germany, and so those languages create the words for those fields. So, language grows and changes depending on these types of factors too.

Anyway, that is my brainstorming.

Very interesting question. I’m looking forward to reading more answers.

vine's avatar

I’d guess (not a linguist or anything here) that Chinese and Japanese are rich in morphemes. Each logograph functions as a morpheme, if I understand correctly, so some of the longer words written with several characters might have a high ratio for synthesis.

In Japanese, at least, the formation of words often requires a combination of kanji (Chinese characters) and kana (from the Japanese syllabary). The kana may be used to indicate plurality or they may conjugate a verb whose base is written with kanji, etc.

A common verb like 食べる (to eat) can be conjugated in the causative-passive form to become the single word 食べさせられる (to be made to eat). To say 食べさせられました could imply additional words, namely the subject and object, but this does not involve the morphemes so probably the ratio remains unchanged.

I think this is what you mean. I’m not sure how to count morphemes in Japanese but I believe there are four in that conjugated verb: 食 / べ / させ / られる. Could be wrong, though. 食べ could maybe be its own morpheme?

Japanese presents an interesting case because of its having absorbed significant elements of Chinese, written and spoken. I’m not sure of the history and the timelines and all that, though, so it might prove that Japanese is comparatively young and thus fits the pattern of age v. synthetic properties.


Although reports of Japanese and politeness and all that sometimes seem exaggerated to me, it’s true that special attention is paid to language relative to social status and hierarchies. In most cases, though, a Japanese person among friends has no reason to beat about the bush and his/her language can be just as direct as English.

There is an honorific kind of conjugation called keigo that often makes verbs longer and expression less direct, and it’s used when speaking to or about someone of a significantly higher status to a) elevate that person and b) humble the speaker. This form is the bête noire to many Western students of the language (e.g. yours truly), but as far as I understand even some native Japanese have trouble mastering this formal way of speaking. Some may not even bother.

Response moderated (Off-Topic)
morphail's avatar

Yes, languages can become more morphologically complex. French future tense was formed by adding forms of “avoir” to the end of the verb.

morphail's avatar

Other examples are the Germanic -ed past tense suffix, and the article becoming an inflectional suffix in some North Germanic languages.

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