Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Analytic and synthetic structures

Morphology deals with the way words are formed. To describe the ways in which languages are different linguists have come up with many terms. While the terms are not necessarily important to the genealogist, the ideas behind them can be. Today I'm going to write about two ways that the meanings of words and their relationships to other words are indicated in languages. Knowing what types of structures are likely to be found in a language can help the genealogist know how to approach documents in that language.

Sometimes words stand alone and the relationships are indicated by the occurrence of other words or by the word order. This type of structure is called analytic. In English, we can indicate a possessive relationship by using the preposition of. The word before the of is possessed and the word after possesses. For example,
the son of John
the daughter of Ingrid
Languages where analytic structures are dominant are called isolating languages.

In English we also have another way of indicating a possessive relationship. Instead, of using an extra word like of, something is added to one of the words, in this case an -'s. This type of structure is called synthetic. For example,
John's son
Ingrid's daughter
Languages where synthetic structures dominate are called inflecting languages.

Most languages are somewhere between these two ideals, with a mixture of analytic and synthetic structures. English tends more to the isolating side of things, especially when compared to other European languages.

In two upcoming posts, I will show how this knowledge can be put to use in two different languages, French and Latin.

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