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
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
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
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 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