Synthetic language structure

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In the language typology according to August Wilhelm Schlegel, a synthetic language structure is a language structure in which the grammatical function of a word is identified by inflection , i.e. in the word. Languages ​​in which this construction principle predominates are called synthetic languages. If both its meaning and its grammatical determinations are expressed in a word at the same time , then there is a synthetic language structure. This is achieved either by changing the root of the word ( ablaut and / or umlaut ) or by affixes , i.e. adding or prefixing grammatical endings. The individual affixes usually have more than just one meaning or function in the respective linguistic framework.

The opposite building principle is shown by the analytic languages . Wilhelm von Humboldt considers the distinction between synthetic and analytical languages ​​to be gradual and of little relevance.

Synthetic Type Languages

The synthetic languages ​​include the following types:

In general it can be said that very few synthetic languages ​​represent purely one of these groups. Rather, one of these language concepts predominates in a specific language.

The Western European languages ​​generally tend to weaken their inflection and thus to an analytical language structure .

Synthetic and analytical forms

A comparison of Latin word forms with their German translations serve as an example:

  • A Latin form of the verb audire 'hear' is audiatur ('let it be heard' or 'let it be heard'); This means that the grammatical categories 3rd person, singular, present, subjunctive and passive are expressed in this Latin verb form, which can be reproduced in German with three or four words.
  • The Latin noun manus 'hand' has an ablative manū 'with the hand'; This is expressed in a word form in Latin, which requires three words for the German translation.

The two Latin words are examples of the synthetic structure of language (meaning and grammatical categories in one word), the corresponding German translations are examples of the analytical procedure (meaning and grammatical categories distributed over several words).

In order to ensure that this development can also be observed within German, a line of the text of the Creed from three time periods should be mentioned; the decreasing degree of synthesis is expressed in the fact that the number of words for the same section of text increases:

  • Old High German , end of the 8th century: "Kilaubu in kot fater almahticun, kiskaft himiles enti erda" (9 words)
  • Middle High German , 12th century: "I vow to got vater almechtigen, schepfære himels und der erde" (11 words)
  • New High German ("Apostolic Creed"): "I believe in God, the Father, Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth" (15 words)

Weakening and strengthening of synthetic elements in New High German

The general tendency in German, for example, is an increase in analytical forms at the expense of synthetically formed forms: the synthetic forms are weakened.


What can be observed in German is the elimination of the synthetically formed past tense ( I sang or I bought ) in favor of the more analytical have - perfect ( I sang / bought ) or the elimination of the genitive ( my father's car ) in favor of a dative construction with "von" ( my father's car ) or in dialects with possessive pronouns (my father's car). Even if the forms mentioned are not all considered to be high-level language, they indicate a trend towards development. Also the z. Synthetic subjunctive ( er singe / er sänge ), which is currently used even more frequently, shows a tendency towards degradation through the paraphrase “would” ( he would sing ).


Opposing tendencies can only be seen in isolated cases due to the emergence of new synthetic forms.


An increase in synthetic elements in German is particularly evident in the prepositions that involve dative or accusative forms . These develop into a kind of " inflected prepositions" through amalgamation with the respective articles . Most here is the preposition to ', which is in the singular already in the written language has come in all three grammatical genders to a merger with the dating article: out to the train station to the track and to the ticket information has been doing for Train station, platform and ticket information . For other prepositions, this amalgamation is e.g. Currently only partially, i. H. in masculine and neuter, which already have the same form in the dative. Also in the plural ( zu den Gleisen = zu Gleisen ) and in the case of indefinite articles ( zuem, zuer ) there are amalgamations on a dialectal or colloquial level. Further examples: am, ans, beim, through, for, behind, im, ins, vom, vorm etc.

A prerequisite for a grammaticalization of these prepositional fusions will, however, be that the way in which they originated is no longer recognizable for the speaker, which could happen, for example, by the omission of to as a single preposition in linguistic usage while the dative fusions to, for , etc. continue to exist . Another trigger for a grammaticalization could be sound change processes that no longer reveal any obvious connection between the actual preposition and the prepositional fusions.

Plural umlaut

An expansion of a morphological structure that has already been developed is recognizable in the plural designation by umlaut, which is very characteristic of German . According to the principle of the apple - the apples , a system equalization takes place in the case of majorities that are actually not umlauted:

  • the wagon - the wagons (regional instead of the wagons )

This process has already taken place, for example, with the word “ Vogel” , whose old plural “ Vogel” was marked more strongly by umlaut.

Originally, the plural umlaut was triggered by an i ending in the plural of Old High German forms, so it was initially only used in the plural of nouns whose plural ended in -i in Old High German:

germ. * gast , * gast i ahd. gast , g e st i nhd. guest, guests [ gɛstə ]

Due to the weakening of the adjacent syllables , in the course of which all vowels at the end of the word of inherited words from Germanic to New High German became ə (only in pronunciation, not in writing), this can no longer be understood today, which is why the plural umlaut is unconsciously used by the speakers as a grammatical sign was reinterpreted, which is still being expanded today, especially in southern Germany ( the day - the day , the arm - the arm, etc.).

Occasional “strengthening” of weak verbs

A few weak verbs become colloquially strong in the past participle ( wave - waved , analogous to drunk , sunk , stink ). In German, however, the tendency actually goes in the other direction, towards weak verbs, i.e. a more analytical form. From the Middle to New High German , the German language has lost almost half of its strong verbs , a process that continues to this day ( sieden - gesotten / gesiedet ).

Degrees of synthesis

Since languages ​​are usually more or less synthetic or analytical, the language typology has undertaken to measure the degree to which a language exhibits synthetic properties. For this purpose, Greenberg developed the synthesis index ( degree of synthesis or gross complexity of the word ) as S = M / W (synthesis equals number of morphemes by number of words in a text / text excerpt). Such an index enables a comparison within a language as well as between languages ​​with regard to this criterion. The special role of flexion is neglected in this index, but taken into account in one of the others.

In the following research, the index was changed to S = W / M, whereby all values ​​fall within the interval between 0 and 1; In addition, it was investigated how this index correlates with 9 other indices. In this way, it can be determined how various properties of a language are connected to one another, represented as a “network of characteristic relationships”.

The following table gives an overview of the synthesis values ​​of some languages, determined according to the formula S = words / morphemes. The languages ​​were classified according to the degree of their synthesis.

language Degree of synthesis language Degree of synthesis
Vietnamese 0.94 Old Church Slavonic 0.44
New Persian 0.66 Gothic 0.43
New English 0.60 Turkish , written language 0.43
Turkish , spoken 0.57 Old Persian 0.41
Modern Greek 0.55 Greek , New Testament 0.41
Bengali 0.53 Ashoka - Prakrit 0.40
Hittite 0.51 Sanskrit 0.39
Greek Homers 0.48 Swahili 0.39
Old English 0.47 Vedic of the Rigveda 0.39
Yakut 0.46 Eskimo 0.27

Note: The higher the value of the degree of synthesis, the shorter the words in the corresponding language tend to be. This is why Eskimo is at the end of the table, which as a polysynthetic language has particularly complex words. Vietnamese, on the other hand, is a language with a particularly simple word structure. The older Indo-European languages ​​(e.g. Sanskrit) are closer to the end, the newer ones at the beginning of the table (e.g. New English). If you compare Old- with New-English or Old- with New-Persian, the tendency from more synthetic to less synthetic word structures becomes apparent. The difference between spoken and written Turkish is also typical.

On the development and position of German

In the previous section it was seen that the degree of synthesis of some older Indo-European languages ​​decreases towards their newer language stages. This can be illustrated in a somewhat more differentiated manner for German based on Horne's study. It should be noted here that Horne defines the degree of synthesis as S = morphemes / words; you must not compare the data directly with those of the previous section.

The degree of synthesis does not differentiate according to the function of the morphemes. In order to also take into account the function of the morphemes, in addition to the degree of synthesis, Horne can also specify the degree of composition (K = number of word roots / number of words), the degree of derivation (A = number of derivative morphemes / number of words ) and consider the degree of inflection (F = number of inflected morphemes / number of words). The result:

Language stage of German S = degree of synthesis K = degree of composition A = degree of derivative F = degree of flexion
Old High German , prose 1.68 1.05 0.02 0.61
Old high German , poetry 1.72 1.04 0.09 0.59
Middle High German , prose 1.63 1.07 0.05 0.51
Middle High German , poetry 1.61 1.02 0.09 0.50
New High German , prose 1.71 1.10 0.19 0.41
New High German , poetry 1.58 1.05 0.07 0.46

Explanation: The trend towards reducing flexion is clear; If one only looks at the prose texts, the degree of synthesis first decreases and then increases again. The relatively low value for the New High German poem may be due to the one poem selected by Horne (Hans Carossa, Der alten Brunnen).

Since Horne only ever evaluated 100-word text (sections) in her investigations, one can have doubts about the representativeness for German. That she nevertheless observed something correct can be proven with extensive studies of the synthesis index in poems, which is now defined as S = number of syllables / number of words:

Period Degree of synthesis century Degree of synthesis
around 1000 1.68 around 1680 1.50
around 1200 1.46 around 1790 1.51
1520s 1.38 around 1800 1.59
around 1620 1.45 around 1930 1.58
around 1640 1.39 around 1970 1.60
around 1650 1.42

The finding is clear: there was a decrease in the degree of synthesis in poems up to the beginning of the 16th century; then the degree of synthesis increases again (with fluctuations).

Corresponding results for prose (without letters) show the same decrease and then increase in the degree of synthesis; Letters (16th - 20th centuries) agree with this, except that slightly decreasing degrees of synthesis can be determined for the 19th and 20th centuries, which is presumably due to a change in the style of language in letters.

See also


  • Kibbey M. Horne: Language Typology. 19th and 20th Century Views. Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 1966. (2nd printing 1970)
  • Gustav Ineichen: General language typology. Approaches and Methods. 2nd, updated and expanded edition. Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1991, ISBN 3-534-07409-2 , especially pages 52-54.
  • August Wilhelm Schlegel: Observations sur la langue et la littérature provençales. Librairie Greque - Latine - Allemande 1818. (Reprint: Gunter Narr (editor), Tübingen Contributions to Linguistics, Tübingen 1971)

Web links

Wiktionary: synthetic language structure  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations

Individual evidence

  1. ^ Wilhelm von Humboldt: About the differences of the human language structure. In: Wilhelm von Humboldt: Writings on the philosophy of language . Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 1963, pages 144–367, reference here: page 318. (Original 1827-29)
  2. Archived copy ( Memento of March 2, 2008 in the Internet Archive )
  3. Helmut Glück (Ed.): Metzler Lexikon Sprach. 4th, updated and revised edition. Metzler, Stuttgart / Weimar 2010, ISBN 978-3-476-02335-3 , keyword synthetic language .
  4. AW v. Schlegel 1818, reprint page 17f.
  5. The examples are taken from a Latin school grammar.
  6. Old and Middle High German text in: Duden. The dictionary of origin. Etymology of the German language. 5th, revised edition. Dudenverlag, Berlin / Mannheim / Zurich 2014, ISBN 978-3-411-04075-9 , page 55.
  7. Thorsten Roelcke: Speech typology de German. De Gruyter, Berlin / New York 1997, ISBN 3-11-015276-2 , pages 116, 174.
  8. Ulrich Ammon and others: German dictionary of variants . Walter de Gruyter, Berlin / New York 2004, ISBN 3-11-016575-9 , keyword wagon .
  9. ^ Wilhelm Braune: Old High German Grammar. Continued by Karl Helm, 11th edition edited by Walther Mitzka. Max Niemeyer Verlag, Tübingen 1963, pages 52-54.
  10. Manfred Faust: Morphological regularization in language change and language acquisition. In: Folia Linguistica 25, 1980, pages 387-411.
  11. ^ Karl-Heinz Best : Language acquisition, language change and vocabulary growth in texts. On the scope of the Piotrowski law. In: Glottometrics 6, 2003, pages 9–34 (PDF ram-verlag ). To transition the strong verbs to the weak page 12-14 class.
  12. ^ Joseph H. Greenberg: A quantitative approach to the morphological typology of language . In: International Journal of American Linguistics XXVI, 1960, pages 178-194, Synthesis Index: page 185, 187f.
  13. The difference between morpheme and morph is neglected here.
  14. ^ Gabriel Altmann , Werner Lehfeldt : Allgemeine Sprachtypologie. Fink, Munich 1973, ISBN 3-7705-0891-2 , page 44.
  15. ^ Gabriel Altmann, Werner Lehfeldt: Allgemeine Sprachtypologie. Fink, Munich 1973, ISBN 3-7705-0891-2 , page 40.
  16. Kibbey Minton Horne: A Critical Evaluation of Morphological Typology with Particular Emphasis on Greenberg's Quantitative Approach as Applied to the Three Historic Stages of German. University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, Michigan. (= Georgetown University, Ph. D., 1966), page 117ff, overview page 162.
  17. ^ Karl-Heinz Best: Word lengths in German. In: Göttinger Contributions to Linguistics 13, 2006, pages 23–49, table on page 26. The table is based on evaluations of hundreds of poems that range from around the year 1000 to around 1970, with average values ​​being formed for the times indicated were.
  18. ^ Karl-Heinz Best: Word lengths in German. In: Göttingen Contributions to Linguistics. 13, 2006, pp. 23-49, tables p. 31; 33.