Edward Sapir (18841939). Language: An Introduction to the Study of Speech. 1921.
symbolized by derivational affixes or symbolic changes in the radical element, while the more abstract notions, including the syntactic relations, may also be conveyed by the word. A polysynthetic language illustrates no principles that are not already exemplified in the more familiar synthetic languages. It is related to them very much as a synthetic language is related to our own analytic English.11 The three terms are purely quantitativeand relative, that is, a language may be analytic from one standpoint, synthetic from another. I believe the terms are more useful in defining certain drifts than as absolute counters. It is often illuminating to point out that a language has been becoming more and more analytic in the course of its history or that it shows signs of having crystallized from a simple analytic base into a highly synthetic form.12
We now to come to the difference between an inflective and an agglutinative language. As I have already remarked, the distinction is a useful, even a necessary, one, but it has been generally obscured by a number of irrelevancies and by the unavailing effort to make the terms cover all languages that are not, like Chinese, of a definitely isolating cast. The meaning that we had best assign to the term inflective can be gained by considering very briefly what are some of the basic features of Latin and Greek that have been looked upon
Note 11. English, however, is only analytic in tendency. Relatively to French, it is still fairly synthetic, at least in certain aspects. [back]
Note 12. The former process is demonstrable for English, French, Danish, Tibetan, Chinese, and a host of other languages. The latter tendency may be proven, I believe, for a number of American Indian languages, e.g., Chinook, Navaho. Underneath their present moderately polysynthetic form is discernible an analytic base that in the one case may be roughly described as English-like, in the other, Tibetan-like. [back]