Synthetic vs. Analytic Languages

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Hello, everyone! Tonight I want to write a little post about two terms you may have heard in reference to languages: synthetic and analytic. I want to talk about them a little bit before I write about Japanese syntax.

Synthetic and Analytic, first of all, are not a perfect dichotomy. One should think of Synthesis and Analysis as two extremes and languages lying in the shades of grey between them. Having said that…

  • Synthetic languages are those that use morphemes (so prefixes and suffixes and infixes) to convey the function of the words in sentences.
  • Analytic languages are those that do not use morphemes to convey the function of words in sentences.

So let’s look at a sentence in English:

“John ate a mushroom.”

We have a subject (John), a direct object (a mushroom), and a verb (ate), right? Why do we know what is what? Because of the order of the words. To prove it, let’s move the words around a bit:

“A mushroom ate John.”

That’s a funky sentence. Nobody would really interpret that the same way as “John ate a mushroom.” Here the subject is the mushroom and the thing being eaten is John.

Note that the nouns do not take any kinds of morphemes. Whether John or the mushroom is the subject or the direct object, it’s morphologically the same. This means that English leans towards analysis.

So let’s look at a sentence in Latin, a language that leans towards synthesis:

“Intoibo ad altare Dei.”
(I will go unto the altar of God.)

For you Classical Latinists, you might find that the sentence is ordered in a non-traditional way and that you’d expect it to be this way:

“Ad altare Dei intoibo.”
(I will go unto the altar of God.)

Now introibo, the verb, is at the end. And yet the sentence’s meaning remains the same. We can even order it as such:

“Ad altare intoibo Dei.”
(I will go unto the altar of God.)

Which, even though a bit odd, works just fine and conveys the exact same thing. Why? Because the function of the words in the sentence is being conveyed by the suffixes.

So, for Latin, we have a lot of neat sets of suffixes which get attached to words depending on a number of things. These suffixes determine the cases of the words. Case is an inflection for nouns and their modifiers (adjectives, pronouns, etc.) that determine function.

We’ll look at one word here: Dei, which means God— because it’s one lots of people have heard.

Singular Nominative: Deus (De+us)
Singular Genitive: Dei (De+i)
Singular Dative: Deo (De+o)
Singular Accusative: Deum (De+um)
Singular Vocative: Deus (or Dee) (De+us or De+e)

(This set of suffixes: -us, -i, -o, -um, -us and -e, along with their plural counterparts, are called Latin’s second declension, by the way.)

Now it’s clearer that Dei is fixed in its function, because if it were the subject or the direct object, we would have the word in different cases, which eliminate ambiguity. This means that synthetic languages do not depend on word order to convey functional meaning… as much.

What about Japanese?

Japanese is a synthetic language. On the spectrum, it’s pretty synthetic, but not anywhere near the most synthetic languages.

Does Japanese have cases? 

You can choose to see it that way. If so, then Japanese has one declension. (Latin has 5, Greek has 3, Classical Armenian has like 10 variants on one underlying declension)

Nominative: -ga
Genitive: -no
Dative/Ablative: -ni
Accusative: -wo (I tend to romanize を as wo and not as o to not confuse anybody)
*Topical: -wa (which is my romanization of は in this very specific case)

We tend to see these suffixes as particles, but even synacticians will group them together when doing their trees. (The reason we don’t normally call them suffixes as such is because we’d have certain expectations about how they’d behave down the timeline.)

These suffixes (or particles) will determine the function of the noun.

What about the other particles?

Right. So what about kara, dewa, the other ga,  to, de, and all that?

Well, they’ll fall into three categories: conjunctions, complements, and post-positions. Conjunctions connect what could otherwise be entire sentences. Complements embed what would otherwise be sentences into sentences, and post-positions mark noun phrases that give us spatio-temporal information. (Post-positions are like prepositions, but after the phrase.)

How much “scrambling” can we do in Japanese?

So you saw me move the Latin words around. Can we do that in Japanese? Well, sometimes. Here are two big rules:

  • You can’t separate a particle (so suffixes, conjunctions, and the others) from the phrase its working with.
  • The sentence should end with the verb, because everything added afterwards will be an afterthought.

“Watashi ga sushi wo tabeta.” (I ate sushi.) is the same semantically as “Sushi wo watashi ga tabeta.” even though some will say that the things farther away from the verb get less emphasis.

Here are 2 ungrammatical sentences:

“Watashi sushi ga wo tabeta.”
“Watashi wa tabeta sushi wo.”

Here you’re seeing that the particles have drifted from the words they modify.

In the case of the afterthought rule, you’ll see a sentence like:

“Sushi wo tabeta, watashi.”

And you’ll notice that the particle/nominative suffix is gone.

Let’s talk about relative clauses:

Relative clauses, in Japanese, are inflectional phrases (so something that would otherwise be considered a sentence) that precede a noun.

“Kore wa jisho to boku ga yonda hon”
(These are a dictionary and the book that I read.)

“Boku ga yonda.” is an inflectional phrase. It can be its own little sentence. The reason we know its a relative clause is by its position (and thus in this regard Japanese behaves analytically.)

If you were to move that relative clause to Jisho, then the sentence would have a different meaning:

“Kore wa boku ga yonda jisho to hon.”
(These are a dictionary that I read and a book.)

That’s enough stuff for one to chew on. In my next post, I’ll expand a little on what constitutes a Japanese sentence, what constitutes a verb phrase, a noun phrase, a prepositional phrase, and how we can make actual syntax trees.