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4.12: Morphosyntax

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    4.8.1 Morpho-syntax, from Sarah Harmon

    Video Script

    One really interesting way that we incorporate morphology into our languages is having it combined with syntax. As the last real content area of morphology, as we ultimately will lead to syntax, let's talk about how these to combine and then combine them really just amazing ways.

    One way that we can analyze languages and talk about how these morphemes come together to create lexicon, and then larger sentences and phrases. One way we can analyze this is whether a language is more analytical or more synthetic. When we talk about an analytical language, we're talking about something that's isolating; that's frequently the term we use. What we say is that there's very few, if any, affixes. When they do get thrown in, they are not that common and they don't give as much information; most of the time a truly analytical language has no affixation whatsoever. Individual lexicon are put together and are analyzed in the way they combine. It is interesting to note that most analytical languages rely heavily on word order; that's something we'll get to again when we talk about syntax. I have Mandarin here; Mandarin is one of the Sino-Tibetan languages and the truth is all of the Sino-Tibetan languages are heavily analytical. They have no inflection whatsoever, at least not in the way that we look at it in the rest of the world. They do not put a piece onto a morpheme and combine them to create larger lexicon. They just have individual one-syllable, and occasionally two-syllable, lexicon that get combined in certain ways and that, together, depending on the word order, convey a certain meaning. This is Mandarin, but you can say the same for Shanghainese, Cantonese, Myanmar or Burmese, Tibetan. All of these languages are spoken in China and Southeast Asia and are connected to that Sino-Tibetan family, the same can also be said for a number of the Southeast Asian languages in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and others. I will not butcher Mandarin; my pronunciation is terrible, but what you can see here is the following. You have a morpheme that means ‘first person’, a second morpheme that means ‘plural’, and so combined when they are together, they mean first person plural, 'we'. Notice that they are not combined in a traditional sense. They are individual lexicon; they stand alone. You have a verb here, and then you have a noun so 'we play piano', 'we are playing piano'. Really, you can't tell tense in this case either, because you have no tense marker; you have nothing that says yesterday, today, tomorrow. Compare that to be where you have the same combination, but you do have a past tense marker. That is how tense is marked—not really marked as a morpheme that is attached to the verb, rather it is a stand-alone. It is this if we are saying 'we play piano yesterday'. For an English speaker or a speaker of most other languages, that would sound really odd; most languages have a tendency to mark the verb in some way to let you know that it has a tense marker or something else. Analytical/isolating languages do not do this. By the way, notice, for example, the combo for 'we', the first person plural, and notice that when it's an object, it has the exact same form; there's no difference. Mandarin, like most analytical languages, heavily lives on word order, it has to be in a certain order for anyone to understand it.

    Compare this to Hungarian. Hungarian is a Finno-Ugric language; it's one of my favorites to use, not just because we have a significant Hungarian population here in the United States, especially here in California, but also because we like to think of all the European languages as being similar. In fact, there are some that are very different. Finno-Ugric languages have some similarities with Indo-European languages, but they are quite different in many ways. Hungarian Estonian and Finnish are the three main Finno-Ugric languages, but there are more. Hungarian is a synthetic language, meaning that you have combinations of affixes and roots, and they are combined to create larger morphemes. If you come if you look at the terms for 'the man'. You see as a subject and you see it as an object; that little [-t] at the end of embert is telling you that it's an object, not a subject. The same is true if you compare the term for ‘the dog’ as a subject versus ‘the dog’ as an object; the object has that [t] at the end. When we look at a possessive, 'our house' versus 'your house', notice that has is the root for 'house' and depending on the suffix depends on whose house it is; that's how you modify it. This includes what we like to think of as a prepositional phrase—in Hungarian, it's a post-positional phrase (more on that in syntax)—it is part of the inflection of the lexicon.

    Synthetic languages and analytical languages are on a spectrum; there isn't really a ‘super synthetic’ language, although we'll get to that concept in a minute. Most languages are on the spectrum; English is a great example of being smack in the middle. In many ways, it's quite analytic; we don't have that many inflectional morphemes. However, we have plenty of affixes; most of them are derivations. We certainly use them in combination with a root to convey information, so we do have synthetic elements as well. We're kind of in the middle of that spectrum: more analytical languages on one side, more synthetic languages on the other.

    The other way to think about how more fields combine in a given language is to talk about them as being agglutinating, functional, or polysynthetic. Let me explain what those terms are and individually give you some examples.

    Agglutinating languages put morphemes together loosely; you can see the edges of the puzzle pieces as you fit them together. Hungarian is a great example; you can pick out the different morphemes. Another example is Swahili. I love using Swahili and the other Niger-Congo languages because it's really straightforward to pick out their different morphemes. You can frequently see them pretty clearly; you just need to take a minute to look at the pieces. This is the verb 'to read' in present tense, in past tense, and then future tense. You have first person singular, so 'I', second person singular, 'you', and third person singular and, in this case, masculine, so 'he'. Notice that the first person marker is ni-, and you can see it horizontally across compared to u- as the second person singular marker and a- the third person singular masculine marker. You have a morpheme that gives you the tense, and then you have the root of the verb. You can see those puzzle pieces pretty clearly. When you learn an agglutinating language. I'm not going to say it's easier to learn the morphology, but certainly there's a piece that's a little easier, in that you're able to see the pieces.

    Compared to a language like English or Spanish, which is fusional, and it's a different story. Fusional languages combine roles in a given suffix or affix. I say suffix because most functional languages tend to have a lot of suffixation. I earlier showed you Spanish verb tener, or 'to have', and it's multiple conjugations Well, this is hablar, 'to speak'. Those of you who have experience with Spanish, you know this verb well. This is just another little bit of a breakdown of those suffixes that give us those inflections and, as you, as you can see, they have multiple roles. That [-o] at the end of [ablo] tells you first person singular present indicative; I actually forgot to put the mood on. This slide gives you four pieces of information in one syllable, one sound even. The same is true for that [a] and that [e], as well as that [n]; technically it's the vowel that goes with it, but that changes as well. When you learn a fusional language, one of the challenges is remembering that that one little syllable or one little inflection carries so much information, especially if the information is very different than what you do in your native language. There's a real juxtaposition as to trying to decipher what that sound means. Those of you who have had to learn Spanish, you know that one of the other pieces that's really important is the stress on the syllable. If you are stressing the root of the verb or if you're stressing the affix and that can drastically change, meaning that, for example, [ablo] as you see it written here, means 'I speak now' in the present tense indicative course. However, if I say [abló] and stress the last syllable, that is third person, singular, past tense and now we have to add an aspect; we have to say punctual as well. The difference between ‘I speak (right now)’, and ‘he spoke (yesterday)’ is all in where you put that stress syllable. Fusional languages have affixes that include multiple meanings and even multiple roles. English [-s] as an inflection is a great example.

    We have agglutinating, and we have fusional, and those two are on a spectrum, but way the end of the spectrum is really a third one and it's called polysynthetic. It combines that synthetic (as in synthetic and analytic language) and fusional or agglutinating, that depends on the language. It combines these aspects in really interesting ways: highly complex lexicon that have multiple affixes and stems. We're not just talking about a language that has a stem and a couple different aspects of stuck on somewhere. We're talking about languages in which a given lexicon, a stand-alone word has an entire phrase, or even sentence, involved. This is Sora, a language spoken in southern India, it is a Dravidian language, it is not Indo-European. Sora is a really great example of polysynthetic languages in action. You see this sentence here, 'he is catching fish', but notice that there are only two lexicon: the lexicon for 'he', so the subject, and then the lexicon for the entire verb phrase. All of it in one lexicon: the morpheme for 'catch', the morpheme for 'fish', the morpheme for 'not past' (what we would consider maybe just present but, it's just not-past), and the morpheme for 'do', as in 'this is an action and an active sentence'. It's not just having a whole verb phrase in a single stand-alone lexicon; you can have an entire sentence in a single standalone lexicon: 'catch-tiger-non past-do-first person agent', which is saying the first person is this person doing the action, so 'I will catch a tiger', all in one lexicon. Polysynthetic languages are completely fascinating. The fact that you can pack in so much information into one lexicon, suddenly learning a language like English or Spanish or Japanese or Russian isn't so difficult.

    4.12: Morphosyntax is shared under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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