Jan 22, 2014

Bounty Hunters and Ents: Analytic vs. Synthetic Languages

written by Jeanette Koenig

As a child, I was always amused with the scene from “Return of the Jedi,” where a “bounty hunter” supposedly handing over Chewbacca to Jabba the Hutt uttered variations of the same two syllables, which were translated as entirely different things: “Yotay, yotay, yotoh” meant “I’ve come for the bounty of this wookie”; “yotoh, yotoh” meant “fifty thousand, no less”; and “ay, yotoh” meant “because I’m holding a thermal detonator.”

In linguistic theory, the language of this bounty hunter very closely approximates an ideal analytic language: the same utterance has an infinite number of meanings, and context determines which of those meanings is to be chosen. The language is extremely concise and takes very little time to speak, but it is extremely ambiguous. In the example above, it took no time to say “yotoh,” but the meaning of the word was different in the various contexts.

On the other side of the spectrum are synthetic languages, illustrated in the movie, “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” when the hobbits Merry and Pippin were dismayed to learn that the Ent creatures had taken up the entire day just saying “hello” to one another. As one of the Ents explained, “We never say anything in old Entish unless it is worth taking a long time to say.” In synthetic languages, every possible meaning has a unique mode of expression. Such a language would have no synonyms and no ambiguity, but it takes longer to say anything, because every possible nuance must be expressed by some morpheme.

These two types of languages exhibit a tension between two competing forces: the need for explicitness and the need for efficiency. Analytic languages would be favored by speakers and writers, because less effort would be required to generate an expression. On the other hand, synthetic languages would be preferred by listeners and readers, whose job it is to decode the unique meaning of the expression.

The English second person pronoun illustrates this tension. The singular and plural forms “ye” and “thou” were lost in favor of the more concise “you.” Modern speakers, in attempting to avoid the resulting ambiguity, have come up with forms such as “you’uns” and “y’all” for the plural. In some dialects, “y’all” has been reanalyzed as a singular, prompting the need for “all’y’all” in the plural.

The Ent and bounty hunter languages are artificial, but real languages fall along the spectrum between synthetic and analytic. Latin, for example, is very synthetic, having a separate noun ending to denote its case, number, grammatical gender, and declension. Russian is slightly less synthetic: it still has an ending to show case, but gender is distinguished mainly in the singular, not the plural, and the language lacks the variety of declensions that Latin has. English is even less synthetic: nouns are inflected only for number; case endings are present only in pronouns; and grammatical gender does not exist at all (though semantic gender exists in singular pronouns).

Previous blogs have discussed the propensity for language to change. One of the changes to be observed is the tendency toward disorder, that is, a shift in language from synthetic to analytic. Russian’s predecessor, called Late Common Slavic, was much more synthetic, both in its nouns, which had a number of declensions, and in its verbs, which were highly inflected for tense. The west Slavic languages Polish and Czech retained the much of highly synthetic characteristics of their nouns but simplified their verb system. On the other hand, the southern Slavic languages Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian retained some complexity in their verb system but simplified their nouns. Russian simplified both its verb and noun systems. All of the Slavic languages are simpler in some way from their Late Common Slavic predecessor.

Latin, a predecessor for French, Spanish, Italian, and others, has five cases and five declensions, few of which have survived in its descendants. Late Common Slavic had seven cases with many different declensions. The common ancestor of these languages, Proto-Indo-European, had eight cases. While highly inflected languages do still exist (Finnish, Georgian, Hungarian, many native American languages), the overall trend seems to be that language is moving in the direction from synthetic to analytic. This is particularly encouraged by the use of modern social networking such as Twitter, which requires that the utterance be extremely efficient. Language consists of what is spoken and written; therefore, the speakers and writers have an advantage in the tug-of-war between analytic and synthetic languages.

What does this say about the future of language? Will it, in time, simplify to concise expressions like the bounty hunter’s? What does all this say about the history of language? Does it imply that language was extremely complicated when it first began, and that the earliest speakers, like the Ents, took days to say what they needed to? What do you think?


Analytic Language. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Analytic_language

Finnegan, Edward. Language: Its Structure and Use. Harcourt Brace: Fort Worth. 1994

Townsend, Charles E. and Laura A. Janda. Common and Comparative Slavic: Phonology and Inflection. Slavica Publishers: Columbus. 1996

Synthetic Language. Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synthetic_language


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