I think the time has come for a new introductory polysynthesis thread for novice conlangers/amateur linguists. The original thread, now in the L&L Museum, served its purpose well at the time, but things have changed significantly since most of that discussion took place. At the time, few of us even had any conception of "polysynthesis", and Jeff Burke was essentially the only ZBBer with any deep knowledge of any polysynthetic languages. And he could only speak to those languages he knew, although some people generalized his statements much more widely than they were intended. Furthermore, the purpose of that thread was not initially to provide a thorough introduction to polysynthesis, and so in some areas it's not particularly helpful for that. Finally, it's both very long (the information is scattered over 20+ pages) with a lot of extraneous stuff, and contains some statements that are either misleading or just plain wrong. For all these reasons, a new introduction, aimed at the novice conlangers of 2012, is in order.
I've tried to write this introduction to help new conlangers figure out the basics so they can design a polysynthetic language on their own, but I've also tried to make it interesting and informative for people who are simply interested in linguistics, and at times it may be pretty dense. On the other hand, partly for reasons of length and simplicity, I've avoided discussing a lot of the more recent, more theoretical work on noun incorporation, non-configurationality, etc. Readers should be aware that the descriptions here are designed primarily to give people a broad overview and help them move forward with conlanging or amateur linguistics; they are not meant to withstand a rigorous investigation of all the details, or to represent the consensus view of all linguists. Those who are interested should continue looking into such matters on their own.
Of course, I'd welcome any additional comments, examples, corrections, questions, etc. from anyone!
Table of Contents
1 - What Is Polysynthesis?
2 - A Quick Summary
3 - Polypersonal Agreement
4 - Noun Incorporation
5 - Other Affixes
6 - Free Word Order
7 - Head-Marking
8 - How Does Polysynthesis Arise?
9 - Where To Go From Here
10 - Sources
1 - What Is Polysynthesis?
Lets start with the basics. What does it mean to say that a language is "polysynthetic"? It's actually a rather vague term, and has been used in different ways by different people. Since synthesis refers to the general ratio of morphemes per word in a given language, ultimately, all "polysynthetic" means is that a language has a large number of morphemes per word. In practice, this generally means the language: (a) has verbs that show polypersonal agreement; (b) permits noun incorporation within verbs; (c) makes extensive use of affixes to mark many other categories (e.g., adverbial notions) expressed with separate words in less synthetic languages like English; (d) has relatively free word order; and (e) is predominantly head-marking. Not all polysynthetic languages have all of these characteristics (some Eskimo-Aleut languages, for example, lack noun incorporation under most definitions, but they're highly polysynthetic), but most polysynthetic languages probably have most of them.
The upshot of all this is that you can get entire sentences expressed in a single long verb in polysynthetic languages. In fact, this is a common definition for polysynthesis. For example, one of Evans and Sasse's definitions is, "Polysynthetic languages represent, in a single verbal word, what in English takes an entire multi-word clause." I'll give a handful of examples, to help you get the feel for how such languages work, before moving on to a more detailed discussion of each of the above traits in turn. Examples:
- Caddo: di’ch’áhyahdán’áh
"they pulled out something round"
- Bininj Gun-wok: abanyawoyhwarrgahmarneganjginjeng
"I cooked the wrong meat for them again"
- Greenlandic: aliikusersuillammassuaanerartassagaluarpaal-li...
"However, they will say that he is a great entertainer, but..."
- Koasati: ostohimilááchihalpíísalahoolimáámimpayon...
"They say that they all might be able to go and bring it to him, but on the contrary..."
Polysynthetic languages are not evenly-distributed geographically. They're extremely common in North America, and fairly common in Central and South America, Siberia, the Caucasus, northern Australia, and New Guinea. Elsewhere, they are considerably rarer.
2 - A Quick Summary
If you're a real newb to linguistics stuff, or if you just don't want to wade through all the description below, in this section I'll summarize the very basic basics of polysynthetic languages so that you can get started on trying to create your own. But this necessarily means a lot will be oversimplified, so be forewarned (If you don't know what this simplified summary means, you probably need to learn more basics first before tackling polysynthesis):
For the most basic beginner's purposes, a polysynthetic language is a language where verb prefixes and suffixes (together called "affixes") are used to mark a lot of the information that in more familiar languages like English is conveyed with separate words. This usually includes affixes which identify the subject (and in transitive verbs, the object); any tense, aspect, or mood distinctions the language makes; noun roots "incorporated" into or compounded with the verb to qualify it or identify participants like its former object or (intransitive) subject; and a host of other notions like directions, adverbial notions, and so on. Polysynthetic languages revolve around their verbs--most of the work of identifying who is doing what to whom, in what manner, using what instruments, etc. etc., is all accomplished on the verb, and often highly inflected verbs, with no other nouns or other words, can stand as a full, complete sentence.