In linguistic typology, an analytic language is a language that primarily conveys relationships between words in sentences by way of helper words (particles, prepositions, etc.) and word order, as opposed to utilizing inflections (changing the form of a word to convey its role in the sentence). For example, the English-language phrase "The cat chases the ball" conveys the fact that the cat is acting on the ball analytically via word order. This can be contrasted to synthetic languages, which rely heavily on inflections to convey word relationships (e.g., the phrases "The cat chases the ball" and "The cat chased the ball" convey different time frames via changing the form of the word chase). Most languages are not purely analytic, but many rely primarily on analytic syntax.
Typically, analytic languages have a low morpheme-per-word ratio, especially with respect to inflectional morphemes. A grammatical construction can similarly be analytic if it uses unbound morphemes, which are separate words, and/or word order. Analytic languages rely more heavily on the use of definite and indefinite articles, which tend to be less prominently used or absent in strongly synthetic languages; stricter word order; various prepositions, postpositions, particles, and modifiers; and context.
The term analytic is commonly used in a relative rather than an absolute sense. The currently most prominent and widely used analytic language is modern English, which has lost much of the inflectional morphology inherited from Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Germanic, and Old English over the centuries and has not gained any new inflectional morphemes in the meantime, making it more analytic than most Indo-European languages.
For example, while Proto-Indo-European had much more complex grammatical conjugation, grammatical genders, dual number and inflections for eight or nine cases in its nouns, pronouns, adjectives, numerals, participles, postpositions and determiners, standard English has lost nearly all of them (except for three modified cases for pronouns) along with genders and dual number and simplified its conjugation.
Latin, German, Greek, and Russian are synthetic languages. Nouns in Russian inflect for at least six cases, most of them descended from Proto-Indo-European cases, whose functions English translates using other strategies like prepositions, verbal voice, word order, and possessive 's instead.
A related concept is the isolating language, which is about a low number of any type of morphemes per word, taking into account derivational morphemes as well. A purely isolating language would be analytic by necessity and lack inflectional morphemes by definition. However, the reverse is not necessarily true, and a language can have derivational morphemes but lack inflectional morphemes. For example, Mandarin Chinese has many compound words, giving it a moderately high ratio of morphemes per word, but since it has almost no inflectional affixes at all to convey grammatical relationships, it is a very analytic language.
English is not totally analytic in its nouns since it uses inflections for number (e.g., "one day, three days; one boy, four boys") and possession ("The boy's ball" vs. "The boy has a ball"). Mandarin Chinese, in contrast, has no inflections on its nouns: compare 一天 yī tiān "one day", 三天 sān tiān "three days" (literally "three day"); 一个男孩 yī ge nánhái "one boy" (lit. "one [entity of] male child"), 四个男孩 sì ge nánhái "four boys" (lit. "four [entity of] male child"). Instead, English is considered to be weakly inflected.
List of analytic languages
- See pp. 50-51 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2009), "Hybridity versus Revivability: Multiple Causation, Forms and Patterns", Journal of Language Contact, Varia 2, pp. 40-67.
- Li, Charles and Thompson, Sandra A., Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, University of California Press, 1981, p. 46.
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