Non-expertly talking about language

I want to talk about a particular language feature and I don't want to be held back by a little thing like "not having any expertise in linguistics".

Non-expertly talking about language

I've been thinking a lot about a particular language feature and I want to talk about it. I don't want to be held back by a little thing like "not having any expertise in linguistics".

So consider this article "experimental" - not in the rigorous "here's my falsifiable hypothesis" kind of way, more in the "felt cute, might delete later" kind of way.


I want to talk about agglutination, which is gonna suuuuuuck because in order to do so I have to define a bunch of crap that non-linguists don't care a lot about and it's going to be boring for both of us. But I'm going to do it anyway, so here we go - we can get through this:

  • morphology: how words change forms. For example, "goose -> geese" is a very specific kind of morphology, where a noun is changed to become plural (or "inflected for pluralization").
  • lexeme: a base unit of language, which can take the form of a word (at minimum) or group of words. I would argue that both 'dog' and 'hot dog' are lexemes. Don't @ me.
  • morpheme: any cluster of letters that have meaning, like -s means 'the thing before me is plural' in English. If you know Object Oriented Programming, 'morpheme' would be the base class of 'lexeme'. Lexemes are morphemes that happen to be standalone words.
  • affix: either a suffix, such as -tion, or a prefix, such as pre-.
  • inflection: kind of the opposite of agglutination, in that meaning of a lexeme is changed by mucking about with its internal letters (see the 'goose' example under 'morphology' above). Old English was highly inflected.

So agglutination is a morphological process where a morpheme or even a lexeme becomes more complex (and possibly changes its part of speech) by adding a number of affixes. Which may seem like utter nonsense so let's solidify things with an example, first in English and then in some Other Language.

Real quick aside, one of my favorite English/German word pairs is independence/Unabhängigkeit because their morpheme semantics are identical, but they draw their specific morphemes themselves from different Indo-European families (English draws from Latin):

  • in- and Un-: "not"
  • de- and ab-: "from"
  • pend- and hängig: "hanging"
  • -ence and -keit: "having the condition of"

Independence is literally "having the condition of not hanging from something", i.e. being freestanding.

English example of agglutination

A great example is the word debug. The first time that was used there was a literal bug (a moth) in a relay in a Mark II computer, and that really messed things up, including the moth itself. To fix the issue the operator literally de-bugged the machine.

This agglutination process is something I feel like we do a lot in spoken English, especially in informal contexts. Sometimes you want to find a word to fit a specific niche in a spoken sentence, but one isn't immediately available, so you just invent one by peppering it with the right affixes.

If I were talking to a friend about this article and expressed an interest in making it appeal to a wider audience, I might say I need to "denerdify" the article. The friend would immediately understand that I meant "perform an action meant to decrease or eliminate an amount of nerdiness from" the article. But all those words are a headache to string together, so I apply the morphemes "de-" and "-ify" to get the same meaning across.

Japanese example of agglutination

So, Japanese is not an Indo-European language, which is the first sentence in this article I've felt super confident about. Its Indo-Europeanlessness means that some of its language features may feel somewhat more (forgive me) foreign than others.

For example, Japanese speakers don't conjugate their verbs using inflection, like we do in verbs derived from Old English ("I am", "you are", "he is") or in, say, Spanish ("yo vengo", "tú vienes", "ella viene"). Japanese conjugation is almost strictly agglutinative.

And I mean strictly. There are no inflective conjugations for tense (past/present/future), person (first/second/third), pluralization (singular/plural), case (nominative/accusative/dative)... it's all agglutinative.

And there are more than just those listed! Formality, volition (wanting to do something), causation, negation, and more are all applied agglutinatively.

So take a verb like "to eat", whose dictionary form is "食べる" (pronounced "taberu"). We start with the root morpheme "食べ" ("tabe") and start applying affixes to modify the word:

  • 食べたい ("tabetai") "I want to eat"
  • 食べます ("tabemasu") "I eat" (polite form)
  • 食べましょう ("tabemashou") "Let's go eat" (polite form)

And you can string these together to get way more complex meanings: "食べたくなかった" (note if you know Japanese: that 'tsu' is small but the font is wonky) which is pronounced "tabetakunakatta" means "I did not want to eat", combining past, negation, and desire.

I've read somewhere that you can use agglutination to write "I did not want to have been made to be able to have been eaten" but I lack the chops to make that happen.

What's cool is, just like "-less" and "de-", these morphemes are not freestanding. You can't have a "たい" floating disconnectedly in a Japanese sentence. They do carry meaning, but only in the context of the word they're connected to.

Okay I feel better now

I've been wanting to talk about agglutination for days at this point. Having done so I feel like I can put this out of my head and move on with my life... or focus on something different, like maybe American Sign Language grammar...

But why? Why was it so important to bring up?

I took a few semesters of Japanese in college (almost 20 years ago), and it never really clicked. Sometime later I learned about agglutination, but it was in the context (if I remember correctly) of Algonquin languages, and it was described as kind of a curiosity ("look how weird this is!").

It was only recently, within the last year, that I happened across an article that stated that Japanese was agglutinative. With that sentence, a whooooole lot of the challenges I had had were suddenly reframed in a way that made sense, and Japanese is much less of a struggle for me now.

Maybe, by talking about it, I can provide that "aha!" moment for someone else. Or maybe, like "The Ring", by putting it in someone else's head, I can move on.

Felt cute, might delete later.