Basic Language Structures

Dr. C. George Boeree

There are a number of ways, besides their relationships, that we can classify languages.  The first one classifies them according to their basic grammatical structures:

Isolating languages are ones that use invariable words, but have strict rules of word order to keep the grammatical meanings of things clear. Included are Chinese, Indonesian, Pidgins and Creoles. Vietnamese is likely the most extreme example.

An isolating language tends to use few if any suffixes, prefixes, or even composite words (like "cowboy"). A slightly different type is the analytic languages: They are still isolating when it comes to grammatical concepts (inflections), but they may use multiple morphemes for derivations, such as the -er in "baker", the re- in "replay", or the two words contained in "cowboy". English is quite analytical, if not isolating.

Most languages in the world are synthetic languages. Synthetic languages are ones in which both grammar and derivation are commonly expressed by suffixes, affixes, composites, and other means of blending two or more concepts.

Agglutinating languages are ones that add very regular prefixes and suffixes to main words in order to express nuances. Included are Finnish, Turkish, Japanese, Tamil, Esperanto, etc. These languages are very explicit and logical, and easy for children to learn. In Finnish, for example, you add an "i" to the stem to indicate the past tense. And you add an "n" to indicate first person singular, or a "t" for second person singular. So the stem - for example "puhu" (speak) becomes puhun (I speak), puhut (you speak), puhuin (I spoke), puhuit (you spoke).

Fusional languages use prefixes and suffixes, but commonly combine two or more concepts in a single suffix or prefix. In French, for example, a single alteration to a verb may indicate the tense, mood, aspect, and person. In German, on the other hand, a single alteration to a noun may indicate the gender, number, and case. These two examples demonstrate the common presence in fusional languages of declensions in nouns (e.g. man, men, man’s, men’s) and conjugations in verbs (e.g. sing, sang, sung), two of the challenges to students of these languages. On top of all that, they can be very irregular. Most of the Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages are fusional.

The polysynthetic languages are a much smaller group of languages that tend towards complex words that carry a sentence-worth of information. Included are Basque, many Amerindian languages, and Klingon. An example is this sentence in Nahuatl (Aztec):

ni - mits - teː - tla - maki - ltiː - s'
I - you - someone - something - give - causative - future
"I shall make somebody give something to you"

These languages are often difficult to learn, unless you are brought up with them.  The Basques joke that they are immune to the Devil because he couldn't learn their language!

A second way of classifying languages is based on the word order they use:

SOV (subject-object-verb) is preferred by the greatest number of languages.  Included are the Indoeuropean languages of India, such as Hindi and Bengali, the Dravidian languages of southern India, Armenian, Hungarian, Turkish and its relatives, Korean, Japanese, Burmese, Basque, and most Australian aboriginal languages.  

Almost all SOV languages use postpositions ("therein lies a tale"), with a notable exception in Farsi (Persian).  Most have the adjective preceding the noun.  Exceptions include Burmese, Basque and the Australian aboriginal languages, which have the adjective follow the noun.

SVO (subject-verb-object) is the second largest group, but has the largest number of speakers.  They are split between languages that use prepositions ("I go to school") and ones that use postpositions ("therein lies a tale").

Among the prepositional languages are the Romance languages, Albanian, Greek, the Bantu languages, languages of southeast Asia, including Khmer, Vietnamese, Thai, and Malay, and the Germanic languages.  Most of these have the adjective following the noun ("un enfant terrible)", except for the Germanic languages, which put the adjective before the noun ("ein schreckliches Kind").

The second group use postpositions.  These include Chinese, Finnish and Estonian, many non-Bantu languages of Africa such as Mandingo, and the South American indian language, Guarani.  The first three have adjectives before the noun, the others have adjectives after the noun.  Some linguists believe that Chinese is moving towards becoming an SOV language.

Then we have the VSO (verb-subject-object) languages.  In Irish, they say Cheannaich mi blobhsa -- “Bought I blouse” -- for I bought a blouse.  

These always use prepositions.  Although a relatively small group, it does include most Semitic languages, including Arabic and Hebrew, Celtic languages such as Gaelic and Welsh, the Polynesian languages, and a  number of American indian languages such as Kwakiutl (British Columbia) and Nahuatl (Aztec).  Most have the adjective after the noun.  Kwakiutl and Nahuatl have the adjective before the noun.

Only a handful of languages put the subject after the object.  Several northwest US and Canadian Indian languages use VOS, including Coeur d’Alene, Siuslaw, and Coos.  But the first uses prepositions and adjectives after noun, while the other two use postpositions and adjective before the noun!

There are also languages that use more than one of the standard systems, such as Tagalog, the majority language in the Philippines.  Strongly synthetic languages, such as Russian and Latin, often permit varied word order as well.

© 2017 C. George Boeree