Long and Short Words: Language Typology


The smallest unit of meaning in a language
is called a “morpheme”. Let’s take a lovely English word, “inconceivable”.
There are three morphemes there: conceive, which in this context means to form
something in your head. Now you could break that down further if we were in old Latin,
but in English that is a morpheme: con and ceive don’t mean anything on their own here. Then we’ve got -able, which means the possibility
of something. “Conceivable”. We can think about this. And then we’ve got in-, which negates it.
“Inconceivable”. We cannot possibly think about this. Different languages have very different approaches
on how to deal with morphemes, and those approaches are the reason why some languages have many
short words, and others have long structures that are frequently difficult for adults learning
a new language to deal with. There’s a spectrum, and it stretches from
“analytic” to “synthetic”. Over on the analytical side, there are the
isolating languages, like Chinese and Vietnamese. Here, each morpheme is usually an entirely
separate word. Assembling a sentence in one of these languages means you’re mostly picking
and choosing words and putting them next to each other. Next along this spectrum, there are the agglutinative
languages, like Turkish and Inuktitut. “Agglutinative” – it’s a lovely word – has the same Latin
roots as the word “glue”: you’re gluing words together from their component parts.
Rather than picking extra words to add to your sentence, you’re adding prefixes or
suffixes to words that are already there. Depending on the language, you might add affixes
for tense, person, number, belonging, possession, or even things like whether an action was
deliberate or not. Next up are the fusional languages. They work
in the same way — assembling bits to make a full word with all the meaning you want
— but now the bits you’re adding affect the parts you’ve got already, tweaking how
it looks or how it sounds. Not only that, but each of the bits you’re adding can have
multiple different meanings attached to it: tense, number, person, all sorts of things
can be coded with just one sound attached to a word. Take “hablo” in Spanish. That
-o morpheme? It means first person, singular, present, indicative. That’s a lot of meaning
in a very short sound. And then, all the way over here, are the polysynthetic
languages, basically the really, really extra-synthetic languages. You’ll find this in Algonquian
languages, up in the cold parts of North America. This is where you can combine potentially
a dozen or more morphemes, enough for a whole sentence, a whole coherent thought, into one
long word. And it really is a word: the individual parts can’t be split apart and survive on
their own. The morphemes you’re using might be agglutinative, in separate blocks, or they
might be fusional, affecting everything around them, but at any rate you have an entire sentence
in the form of one beautiful, long, interconnected word. Now here’s the thing: most English speakers
consider polysynthetic languages to be the crazy side of language. It seems incredibly
complicated. And for adults trying to learn a polysynthetic language, it is incredibly
confusing. But children may actually find these languages easier to learn: because the
words are long and intertwined, and each bit affects another, there’s more redundancy
there. If you mishear or misunderstand one part, you’re much more likely to be able
to work out what is meant from how the words around it have changed. It’s important to remember that like many
things in life, this is a spectrum. There aren’t many languages that fit neatly into
any one of these categories. English is actually a fairly isolating language, down at this
end of the scale — but it’s still generally classified as synthetic, because we’ve got
many, many words like “inconceivable”. And the family that English belongs to, Indo-European,
is pretty synthetic, too. And while this is the conventional approach
to classifying languages, it does have a few problems. It distinguishes loads of different
categories on this side of the spectrum, but it lumps all the isolating languages together.
That’s probably because most of the linguists who set up the classification — particularly
the early ones — were European, so they concentrated on the differences that made sense to them. Languages are messy things that shift and
change over time, between places and people. Categorising them can be useful for research,
and it tells you a few things about the possibilities of what the human brain can do, but once you
start to file them away you start to realise that, like most everything about human communication,
they really don’t fit into neat little boxes. [Translating these subtitles? Add your name here!]

100 thoughts on “Long and Short Words: Language Typology

  1. What about irreguardless. Grammar police will hate you, but common usage will say its "acceptable" but not formal.
    Perhaps this should go on the prescptive/descriptive video.

  2. In Cree (an algonquian language) we have
    “nikînôhtepemiyokinokiyokawasicinânawâw“
    “We (exclusive) had wanted to come and have a nice long visit with them”. A whole sentence in one word.

  3. English speakers really do believe that INCONCEIVABLE is a form of word CONCEVE, however it is not. They are independent words made of the same morpheme. English is an analytic language with a few synthetic constructions: play – played-playing-plays (forms of verb), forest – forests (plural/singular of noun), he-his-him (genetive and dative forms of personal pronouns). In these examples play and played are dorms of the same word, unlike inconceivable and conceive. In English, adjectives do not have forms, unlike in Japanes or Russian. In japanese adjectives can be positive and negative, present and past and have other forms too. For example: This book is red = Kono hon wa akai. This book was red = Kono hon wa akatta desu. This book was not red = Kono hon wa akakunakatta. Here akai, akatta and akakunakatta are just three forms of the adjective AKAI = red. And there are even more forms, while in English you have only the form RED, regardless how many words you have with that morpheme (redness is AKASA in Japanese which is not considered a form of AKAI, it is an independent word). In Russian, for example, adjectives usually have 24 forms (some of them are repititive). For example: I have a RED book = U men'a est' KRASNAJA kniga. I have a RED pencil = U men'a est' KRASNYJ karandash. I have RED pencils = U men'a est' KRASNYJE karandashi. I write with a RED pencil = Ya pishu KRASNYM karandashom. I write with a RED pen = Ya pishu KRASNOJ ruchkoj and so on, and so forth. And we are discussing only adjectives which don't need to have a lot of forms. What about verbs? They have about amhundred of forms. I will give an example: English: I write, you write, he writes, we write, you write, they write. Russian: ya pishu, ty pishesh', on pishet, my pishem, vy pishet'e, oni pishut. Infinitive PISAT'. Some forms: Pisavshij, napisavshi – all are forms of one word. However PISATEL' (author) with the same morpheme is not a form of the word PISAT', it is an independent word, like INCONCEIVBLE and CONCEIVE.

  4. Pedantry alert: Wernicke and Broca's areas are on the Left-hand side in the vast majority of humans (regardless of handedness), so when you gesture to your head regarding language, ideally it should be the left side of your head. (ok, I feel better now 😉

  5. Klingon takes this a step further by having absolute prefixes and suffixes that can (and must if you want that meaning in the sentence) be applied to literally any base word of the proper type (There are verb suffixes and noun suffixes that only work accordingly). If causes some very long words and very short sentences.

  6. Ok, so con and ceive are not morphemes because they don't mean anything by their own, but in is a morpheme even if it does not have the same meaning by its own?

    That seems rather illogical to me!

  7. Precipitevolissimevolmente It's just an adverb, (there is also a superlative in there), for something done really in a hurry. It's one of those words you can only make fun of!I can't even find all the morphemes in there

  8. This is very interesting. I think I like the analytic side better because you can negate a while sentence with one word.

  9. latin being a fusional language is i think one of the reasons as to why people tend to think it’s so difficult, you have to memorize so many verb endings

  10. why does agglutinative come before fusional? agglutinative verbs express more than fusional ones. the difference is you just add the person who's doing the verb, but overall agglutinative languages have way more forms and more can be expressed with a verb

  11. I'm a native Hebrew and Russian speaker and have been learning English since the age of 12. It's been many years and thus I've obtained a minimally intellectual understanding of English.
    Sometimes, when I speak to native Americans, without the usage of slang involved, they haven't the smoothest idea of what I am saying. This is highly frustrating and I am forced to often resort to the simplest shortest versions of words I can think of.
    Sad.
    It's like speaking with emojis

  12. What you said about conceive is wrong because it not a morheme. Con- is a bound prefix and -ceive is a bound root.
    Take for example the word perceive (per- + -ceive).

  13. megszentségteleníthetetlenségeskedéseitekért
    for your [plural] continued behaviour as if you could not be desecrated
    and it's not even multiple words put together (like in German and Finnish and most of the other long-word languages), they are just modifiers on the morpheme "szent" ("saint")

  14. In German there are words like "Rindfleischetikierungsübertragungsaufgabenüberwachungsgesetz" (Rind, Fleich, Etikett, -ierung, Übertragen, -ung, Aufgabe, -n, überwachen, -ung, Gesetz)

  15. With my substantial hearing loss (40 to 60 dB at higher frequencies), before I got hearing aids I often struggled to understand speech in English and went off the rails into confusion- to the amusement of the people I spoke with. The redundancy of polysynthetic languages probably makes it easier for partially deaf people to fill in the gaps and communicate clearly despite their handicap.

  16. Kayudiputasimukunoya – Hiligaynon, Malay, Spanish, Indonese, Chinese My languave is mixed of every lamguage hahaha

  17. In Dutch, a word is allowed to be infinitely long, but then it is agglutanative. Hottetottensoldatenpakkenmanagersdataplanningsessieskamprugzakkenverzamelaarcoachtrainingonderbroekgezelschapbierdopjeshuisgroepzolderkelderverkleining… Etc.

  18. The Old English word for daily in the Lord's Prayer, or Fæder ūre, is 'gedæghƿāmlīcan'. Not as long as some of the other languages, but there are some very cool words like this in Old English.

  19. Morganstern IS Goldman… it was a pen named concieved by Goldman for his story-in-a-story that became The Princess Bride.

  20. The most stupid thing is when you add a prefix to negate what is already negated:
    Closed.
    Disclosed.
    Undisclosed.
    Why not use unopened instead of closed and make it even more stupid: Undisunopened?

  21. I'm not like joking about this, the single word will be enough: whomst'd've'ly'yaint'nt'ed'ies's'y'es'nt'ed'ies's'y'es'nt't're'ing'able'ric'ive'al'nt'ne'm'll'ble'al

  22. Schiffskapitänsmützenhakenherstellermaschinenputzerhandschuhe
    The gloves of the cleaner of a machine that produces hooks upon which you can hang the hat of a captain of a ship. It's a must learn if you want to be good at German

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