Analytic - synthetic (grammar)

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The adjectives analytic and synthetic are used, with different meanings, in a variety of academic disciplines, e.g., in chemistry and in philosophy. This page is concerned exclusively with the way the words are used in the study of language and grammar. (For their use in philosophy see Analytic-synthetic (Philosophy)).

In the study of language and grammar the terms analytic and synthetic serve to distinguish two different features of language or types of grammatical construction. Derivatively, a language (e.g., German or Chinese) may be described as an analytic or a synthetic language on the basis of its making use of one or other of these types of grammatical construction to a marked degree.

A meaningful sentence is not a mere sequence of words, but a sequence of words between which there are grammatical relations. These relations may be indicated in different ways – on the one hand, by word order and the use of so called functional words (such as prepositions and auxiliary verbs) and, on the other, by changes to the form of (some of) the words themselves (e.g., the alteration of an ending or of an internal vowel). Constructions of the first type are known as analytic constructions, and constructions of the second type as synthetic constructions. While (almost) all languages make use of constructions of both types, they differ significantly in the extent to which they make use of one type rather than the other: a language which uses analytic constructions to a marked degree may be described as an analytic language, and a language which makes use of synthetic constructions to a marked degree may be described as a synthetic language.

Since English is often cited as an example of an analytic language, and Latin as an example of a synthetic language, a brief comparison of the two languages in the relevant respect may help to clarify the distinction.

  • In English what is the subject and what the object of a verb is determined by word order, whereas in Latin it is determined by inflectional suffixes (i.e., case-endings). In an English sentence the subject (normally) comes before the verb and the object after. So the sentences ‘The cat hates the dog’ and ‘The dog hates the cat’ do not have the same meaning: in the first the cat is the subject and the dog is the object of her hatred, while in the second the roles are reversed. By contrast in Latin word order is irrelevant: what is the subject and what the object of a verb is determined by the case-endings of the relevant words, a noun which is the subject of a verb being in the nominative case and (normally) having a different inflectional suffix from a noun which is the object of the verb and is in the accusative case. Thus Feles canem odit means ‘The cat hates the dog’ not because of the word order but because the word for ‘cat’, feles, has the nominative case ending (-es) and the word for ‘dog’, canis, has the accusative case-ending (-em). To translate the sentence ‘The dog hates the cat’ we need not change the order of the words but must change the case-endings and say Canis felem odit (or Felem canis odit).
  • In English which noun an adjective qualifies is determined by word order: an adjective normally comes immediately before the noun it qualifies. So ‘Dogs hate big cats’ has a different meaning from ‘Big dogs hate cats’. By contrast in Latin what links an adjective to the noun it qualifies is not their proximity but their agreement, as shown by their inflectional suffixes, in respect of gender, number, and case. So, though typically in Latin an adjective immediately follows the noun it qualifies, it is not necessary that adjective and qualified noun be adjacent. They may, especially in poetry, be at some distance from one another – as in a famous line from Virgil’s Aeneid, when Aeneas responds to Queen Dido’s request for an account of his experiences after the fall of Troy by saying Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem (‘Unspeakable, O Queen, [is] the grief you bid me renew’): here the adjective infandum (‘unspeakable’), the first word in the line, qualifies the noun dolorem (‘grief’), the last word in the line, the separation of the two words in this way serving to give additional emphasis to each.
  • Often where English uses a prepositional phrase, Latin uses a single word, viz., an appropriately inflected noun. Thus ‘for a boy’ translates as puero (the dative case of puer), ‘with a knife’ as cultro (the ablative case of culter (a knife)), and the double prepositional phrase ‘by the authority of the king’ as auctoritate regis (the ablative case of auctoritas (authority) and the genitive case of rex (king)).
  • English verbal phrases (e.g., ‘he will be chosen’, ‘we have won’, ‘you were running’) often translate into Latin as a single word (eligetur, vicimus, currebas). A Latin verb form conveys through its inflection several elements of meaning, namely, person and number (first, second, or third; singular or plural), voice (active or passive); tense (present, imperfect, future; perfect, pluperfect; or future perfect); and mood (indicative, subjunctive, or imperative). In English these different elements of meaning are typically conveyed by the use of additional words - person and number by the personal pronouns (I, you, he, she, it, we, they); voice, tense and mood by auxiliary verbs (‘they have been arrested’, ‘we shall overcome’, ‘he may survive’).

A note of caution

Although English is correctly described as an analytic language, it does have some synthetic features, e.g., the use of the suffix ‘-s’ to denote plurality in nouns and ‘ed’ to indicate the past tense of verbs. Similarly Latin, though correctly described as a synthetic language, does have some analytic features, e.g., the perfect passive tense is not a single word but is formed with the help of the auxiliary verb esse, ‘to be’, as in interfectus est (‘he has been killed’) or servati sunt (‘they have been rescued’).

Some related term

Analytic languages are sometimes referred to in this context as isolating languages. The use of the term isolating seems to capture the thought that the different words in an analytic construction isolate or separate out elements of meaning which are combined or fused together in a synthetic construction.

Synthetic languages are sometimes described as inflectional or fusional languages. The appropriateness of the term inflectional is self-evident. The use of the term fusional underlines the fact that in a synthetic language various elements of meaning which may be represented by distinct words in an analytic language may be fused into a single word or even into a single inflectional suffix.

See also Agglutination.