Basic Language Structures
There are a number of ways we describe languages. The first one
classifies them according to their basic grammatical structures:
- Isolating languages (aka
ones that use invariable words, but have
rules of word order to keep the grammatical meanings of things clear.
- Included are Chinese, Indonesian, Pidgins and Creoles.
- English is inflexional (see below), but has been moving towards
- Isolating languages are easy for adults to learn, but not as
- Agglutinating languages
(aka synthetic)-- ones that add very regular prefixes
to main words in order to express nuances
- Included are Finnish, Turkish, Japanese, Tamil, etc.
- These languages are very explicit and logical, and easy for
- Inflexional languages
(aka fusional) --
languages that use prefixes and suffixes, but also vary words to
- Included are Indo-European and Afro-Asiatic languages.
- Declensions -- variations on nouns (e.g. man, men, man’s,
- Conjugations -- variations on verbs (e.g. sing, sang, sung).
- Inflexional languages can be difficult to learn, because they
- Amalgamating languages
(aka polysynthetic) --
a much smaller group of languages that
complex words that carry a sentence-worth of information.
- Included are Basque, many Amerindian languages, and Klingon.
- These languages are usually very difficult to learn, unless you
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Next, 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
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
There are also languages that use more than one of the standard
systems. Notable of these is Tagalog and English. Strongly
inflexional languages, such as Russian and Latin, often permit varied
word order as well.