Polysynthetic language
In linguistic typology
Morphological typology
Morphological typology is a way of classifying the languages of the world that groups languages according to their common morphological structures. First developed by brothers Friedrich von Schlegel and August von Schlegel, the field organizes languages on the basis of how those languages form...

, polysynthetic languages are highly synthetic language
Synthetic language
In linguistic typology, a synthetic language is a language with a high morpheme-per-word ratio, as opposed to a low morpheme-per-word ratio in what is described as an isolating language...

s, i.e., languages in which words are composed of many morpheme
In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest semantically meaningful unit in a language. The field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word,...

s. Whereas isolating language
Isolating language
An isolating language is a type of language with a low morpheme-per-word ratio — in the extreme case of an isolating language words are composed of a single morpheme...

s have a low morpheme-to-word ratio, polysynthetic languages have extremely high morpheme-to-word ratios.

Not all languages can be easily classified as being completely polysynthetic. Morpheme and word boundaries are not always clear cut, and languages may be highly synthetic in one area but less synthetic in other areas (compare verbs and nouns in Southern Athabaskan languages
Southern Athabaskan languages
Southern Athabaskan is a subfamily of Athabaskan languages spoken primarily in the North American Southwest with two outliers in Oklahoma and Texas...



The degree of synthesis refers to the morpheme
In linguistics, a morpheme is the smallest semantically meaningful unit in a language. The field of study dedicated to morphemes is called morphology. A morpheme is not identical to a word, and the principal difference between the two is that a morpheme may or may not stand alone, whereas a word,...

In language, a word is the smallest free form that may be uttered in isolation with semantic or pragmatic content . This contrasts with a morpheme, which is the smallest unit of meaning but will not necessarily stand on its own...

 ratio. Languages with more than one morpheme per word are synthetic. Polysynthetic languages lie at the extreme end of the synthesis continuum with a very high number of morphemes per word (at the other extreme are isolating or analytic languages with only one morpheme per word). These highly synthetic languages often have very long words that correspond to complete sentences in less synthetic languages.

Many, if not most, languages regarded as polysynthetic include agreement with object arguments as well as subject arguments in verbs. Incorporation
Incorporation (linguistics)
Incorporation is a phenomenon by which a word, usually a verb, forms a kind of compound with, for instance, its direct object or adverbial modifier, while retaining its original syntactic function....

 (primarily noun incorporation) has been an issue that has historically been confused with polysynthesis and also used as a criterion for its definition. Incorporation refers to the phenomenon where lexical morphemes (or lexemes) are combined together to form a single word. Not all polysynthetic languages are incorporating, and not all incorporating languages are polysynthetic.

A contrast was made by some linguists between oligosynthetic and polysynthetic languages, where the former term was applied to languages with relatively few morphemes. The distinction is not widely used today.

Mark C. Baker
Mark Baker (linguist)
Mark C. Baker is an American linguist. He received his Ph. D. from MIT in 1985 and has taught at Rutgers since 1998. Prof. Baker has frequently been a faculty member at the Linguistic Society of America's Summer Institute and, prior to coming to Rutgers, was a faculty member at McGill University...

 has tried to define polysynthesis as a syntactic macroparameter within Noam Chomsky
Noam Chomsky
Avram Noam Chomsky is an American linguist, philosopher, cognitive scientist, and activist. He is an Institute Professor and Professor in the Department of Linguistics & Philosophy at MIT, where he has worked for over 50 years. Chomsky has been described as the "father of modern linguistics" and...

's "principles and parameters
Principles and parameters
Principles and parameters is a framework within generative linguistics in which the syntax of a natural language is described in accordance with general principles and specific parameters that for particular languages are either turned on or off...

" programme. He defines polysynthetic languages as languages that conform to the syntactic rule that he calls the "polysynthesis parameter," and that as a result show a special set of morphological and syntactic properties. The polysynthesis parameter states that all phrasal heads must be marked with either agreement morphemes of their direct argument or else incorporate
Incorporation (linguistics)
Incorporation is a phenomenon by which a word, usually a verb, forms a kind of compound with, for instance, its direct object or adverbial modifier, while retaining its original syntactic function....

 these arguments in that head. This definition of polysynthesis leaves out some languages that are commonly stated as examples of polysynthetic languages (such as Inuktitut), but can be seen to be the reason of certain common structural properties in others such as Mohawk
Mohawk language
Mohawk is an Iroquoian language spoken by around 2,000 people of the Mohawk nation in the United States and Canada . Mohawk has the largest number of speakers of the Northern Iroquoian languages; today it is the only one with greater than a thousand remaining...

 and Nahuatl. Baker's definition, probably because of its heavy dependence on Chomskian theory, has not been accepted as a general definition of polysynthesis.

Origin of term

The term "polysynthesis" was probably first used in a linguistic sense by Peter Stephen DuPonceau
Peter Stephen DuPonceau
Peter Stephen Du Ponceau or DuPonceau, born Pierre-Étienne Du Ponceau, was a French linguist, philosopher, and jurist...

 (a.k.a. Pierre Étienne Duponceau) in 1819 as a term to describe American languages:

Three principal results have forcibly struck my mind... They are the following:
  1. That the American languages in general are rich in grammatical forms, and that in their complicated construction, the greatest order, method and regularity prevail
  2. That these complicated forms, which I call polysynthesis, appear to exist in all those languages, from Greenland
    Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark, located between the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans, east of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Though physiographically a part of the continent of North America, Greenland has been politically and culturally associated with Europe for...

     to Cape Horn
    Cape Horn
    Cape Horn is the southernmost headland of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago of southern Chile, and is located on the small Hornos Island...

  3. That these forms appear to differ essentially from those of the ancient and modern languages of the old hemisphere. (Duponceau 1819:xxii-xxiii)

The manner in which words are compounded in that particular mode of speech, the great number and variety of ideas which it has the power of expressing in one single word; particularly by means of the verbs; all these stamp its character for abundance, strength, and comprehensiveness of expression, in such a manner, that those accidents must be considered as included in the general descriptive term polysynthetic. (Duponceau 1819:xxvii)

I have explained elsewhere what I mean by a polysynthetic or syntactic construction of language.... It is that in which the greatest number of ideas are comprised in the least number of words. This is done principally in two ways. 1. By a mode of compounding locutions which is not confined to joining two words together, as in the Greek, or varying the inflection or termination of a radical word as in the most European languages, but by interweaving together the most significant sounds or syllables of each simple word, so as to form a compound that will awaken in the mind at once all the ideas singly expressed by the words from which they are taken. 2. By an analogous combination of various parts of speech, particularly by means of the verb, so that its various forms and inflections will express not only the principal action, but the greatest possible number of the moral ideas and physical objects connected with it, and will combine itself to the greatest extent with those conceptions which are the subject of other parts of speech, and in other languages require to be expressed by separate and distinct words.... Their most remarkable external appearance is that of long polysyllabic words, which being compounded in the manner I have stated, express much at once.(Duponceau 1819:xxx-xxxi)

The term was made popular in a posthumously published work by Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand Freiherr von Humboldt was a German philosopher, government functionary, diplomat, and founder of Humboldt Universität. He is especially remembered as a linguist who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and to the theory and practice...


The terms synthetic and polysynthetic were first used in the modern sense by Edward Sapir
Edward Sapir
Edward Sapir was an American anthropologist-linguist, widely considered to be one of the most important figures in the early development of the discipline of linguistics....

 in the 1920s.


Recent linguistic work by Johanna Mattissen suggests that polysynthetic languages can be fundamentally divided into two typological categories, which differ in the way in which morphemes are organised to form words.


Affixally polysynthetic languages, as the name suggests, are those that use only non-root-bound morpheme
Bound morpheme
In morphology, a bound morpheme is a morpheme that only appears as part of a larger word; a free morpheme is one that can stand alone.Affixes are always bound. English language affixes are either prefixes or suffixes. E.g., -ment in "shipment" and pre- in "prefix"...

s to express concepts that in less synthetic languages are expressed by separate words such as adjective
In grammar, an adjective is a 'describing' word; the main syntactic role of which is to qualify a noun or noun phrase, giving more information about the object signified....

s and adverb
An adverb is a part of speech that modifies verbs or any part of speech other than a noun . Adverbs can modify verbs, adjectives , clauses, sentences, and other adverbs....

s. They also use these bound morphemes to make other noun
In linguistics, a noun is a member of a large, open lexical category whose members can occur as the main word in the subject of a clause, the object of a verb, or the object of a preposition .Lexical categories are defined in terms of how their members combine with other kinds of...

s and verb
A verb, from the Latin verbum meaning word, is a word that in syntax conveys an action , or a state of being . In the usual description of English, the basic form, with or without the particle to, is the infinitive...

s from a basic root, which can lead to very complex word forms without non-lexical suffixes. These bound morphemes often relate to body parts, other essential items of the culture of the language's speakers or features of the landscape where the language is spoken. Deictics and other spatial and temporal relations are also very common among these bound morphemes in affixally polysynthetic languages.

Affixally polysynthetic languages do not use noun incorporation or verb serialisation, since this would violate the rule concerning the number of roots allowable per word. Many have a weak distinction between nouns and verbs, which allows affixes to be used to translate these parts of speech.

Affixally polysynthetic languages may have a word structure that is either
  • templatic, with a fixed number of slots for different elements, which are fixed in their position and order relative to each other; or
  • scope ordered, with forms not restricted in complexity and length. The components are fixed in their relative scope and are thus ordered according to the intended meaning. Usually in this case a few components are actually fixed, such as the root in Eskimo–Aleut languages.

Examples of affixally polysynthetic languages include Inuktitut
Inuktitut or Eastern Canadian Inuktitut, Eastern Canadian Inuit language is the name of some of the Inuit languages spoken in Canada...

, Cherokee
Cherokee language
Cherokee is an Iroquoian language spoken by the Cherokee people which uses a unique syllabary writing system. It is the only Southern Iroquoian language that remains spoken. Cherokee is a polysynthetic language.-North American etymology:...

, Athabaskan languages
Athabaskan languages
Athabaskan or Athabascan is a large group of indigenous peoples of North America, located in two main Southern and Northern groups in western North America, and of their language family...

, the Chimakuan languages
Chimakuan languages
The Chimakuan language family consists of two languages spoken in northwestern Washington, USA on the Olympic Peninsula. It is part of the Mosan sprachbund, and one of its languages is famous for having no nasal consonants...

Quileute language
Quileute , also known as Quillayute , is the only surviving Chimakuan language, spoken by a few Quileute and Makah elders on the western coast of the Olympic peninsula south of Cape Flattery at La Push and the lower Hoh River in Washington state, USA...

) and the Wakashan languages
Wakashan languages
Wakashan is a family of languages spoken in British Columbia around and on Vancouver Island, and in the northwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, on the south side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca....



In compositionally polysynthetic languages, there usually can be more than one free morpheme per word, which gives rise to noun incorporation and verb serialisation to create extremely long words. Although they tend to be of much less importance than in affixally polysynthetic languages, compositionally polysynthetic languages tend to have as many of the bound affixes as purely affixal polysynthetic languages.

It is believed that all affixally polysynthetic languages evolved from compositionally polysynthetic ones via the conversion of morphemes that could stand on their own into affixes.

Because they possess a greater number of free morphemes, compositionally polysynthetic languages are much more prone than affixally polysynthetic ones to evolve into simpler languages with less complex words. On the other hand, they are generally easier to distinguish from non-polysynthetic languages than affixally polysynthetic languages.

Examples of compositionally polysynthetic languages include Classical Ainu
Ainu language
Ainu is one of the Ainu languages, spoken by members of the Ainu ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō....

, Sora
Sora language
Sora is a Munda language of India, spoken by some 288,000 native speakers in South Orissa in eastern India, mainly in the Ganjam District, but also in the Koraput and Phulbani districts; other communities exist in Andhra Pradesh , Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, and the...

, Chukchi
Chukchi language
The Chukchi language is a Palaeosiberian language spoken by Chukchi people in the easternmost extremity of Siberia, mainly in Chukotka Autonomous Okrug...

, Tonkawa
Tonkawa language
The Tonkawa language was spoken in Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico by the Tonkawa people. A language isolate, with no known related languages, Tonkawa is now extinct...

, and most Amazonian languages.


An example from Chukchi
Chukchi language
The Chukchi language is a Palaeosiberian language spoken by Chukchi people in the easternmost extremity of Siberia, mainly in Chukotka Autonomous Okrug...

, a polysynthetic, incorporating, and agglutinating language:
Subject (grammar)
The subject is one of the two main constituents of a clause, according to a tradition that can be tracked back to Aristotle and that is associated with phrase structure grammars; the other constituent is the predicate. According to another tradition, i.e...

Present tense
The present tense is a grammatical tense that locates a situation or event in present time. This linguistic definition refers to a concept that indicates a feature of the meaning of a verb...

'I have a fierce headache.'   (Skorik 1961: 102)

has a 5:1 morpheme-to-word ratio with 3 incorporated lexical morphemes ( 'great', 'head', 'ache').

Classical Ainu

From Classical Ainu
Ainu language
Ainu is one of the Ainu languages, spoken by members of the Ainu ethnic group on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō....

, another polysynthetic, incorporating, and agglutinating language:
      Usaopuspe aeyaykotuymasiramsuypa.
      usa-opuspe a-e-yay-ko-tuyma-si-ram-suy-pa
      various-rumors 1SG-APL
Applicative voice
The applicative voice is a grammatical voice which promotes an oblique argument of a verb to the object argument, and indicates the oblique role within the meaning of the verb. When the applicative voice is applied to a verb, its valency may be increased by one...

Reflexive verb
In grammar, a reflexive verb is a verb whose semantic agent and patient are the same. For example, the English verb to perjure is reflexive, since one can only perjure oneself...

Grammatical aspect
In linguistics, the grammatical aspect of a verb is a grammatical category that defines the temporal flow in a given action, event, or state, from the point of view of the speaker...

      'I wonder about various rumors.' (lit. 'I keep swaying my heart afar and toward myself over various rumors'.)
(Shibatani 1990: 72)


Polysynthetic languages have arisen in many places around the world. The list below gives some families that are stereotypically polysynthetic, although some members of the families may be less so than others.


  • Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages
    Chukotko-Kamchatkan languages
    The Chukotko-Kamchatkan or Chukchi–Kamchatkan languages are a language family of extreme northeastern Siberia. Its speakers are indigenous hunter-gatherers and reindeer-herders....

  • Ket
    Ket language
    The Ket language, formerly known as Yenisei Ostyak, is a Siberian language long thought to be an isolate, the sole surviving language of a Yeniseian language family...

  • Nivkh
    Nivkh language
    Nivkh or Gilyak is a language spoken in Outer Manchuria, in the basin of the Amgun , along the lower reaches of the Amur itself, and on the northern half of Sakhalin. 'Gilyak' is the Manchu appellation...


North America

  • Algonquian languages
    Algonquian languages
    The Algonquian languages also Algonkian) are a subfamily of Native American languages which includes most of the languages in the Algic language family. The name of the Algonquian language family is distinguished from the orthographically similar Algonquin dialect of the Ojibwe language, which is a...

  • Caddoan languages
    Caddoan languages
    The Caddoan languages are a family of Native American languages. They are spoken by Native Americans in parts of the Great Plains of the central United States, from North Dakota south to Oklahoma.-Family division:...

  • Eskimo–Aleut languages
  • Iroquoian languages
    Iroquoian languages
    The Iroquoian languages are a First Nation and Native American language family.-Family division:*Ruttenber, Edward Manning. 1992 [1872]. History of the Indian tribes of Hudson's River. Hope Farm Press....

  • Mixe–Zoquean languages
  • Nadene languages
  • Salishan languages
    Salishan languages
    The Salishan languages are a group of languages of the Pacific Northwest...

  • Siouan languages
    Siouan languages
    The Western Siouan languages, also called Siouan proper or simply Siouan, are a Native American language family of North America, and the second largest indigenous language family in North America, after Algonquian...

     ("mildly" polysynthetic)
  • Totonacan languages
    Totonacan languages
    The Totonacan languages are a family of closely related languages spoken by approximately 200,000 Totonac and Tepehua people in the states of Veracruz, Puebla, and Hidalgo in Mexico...

  • Uto-Aztecan languages
    Uto-Aztecan languages
    Uto-Aztecan or Uto-Aztekan is a Native American language family consisting of over 30 languages. Uto-Aztecan languages are found from the Great Basin of the Western United States , through western, central and southern Mexico Uto-Aztecan or Uto-Aztekan is a Native American language family...

  • Wakashan languages
    Wakashan languages
    Wakashan is a family of languages spoken in British Columbia around and on Vancouver Island, and in the northwestern corner of the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state, on the south side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca....

  • Yana
    Yana language
    Yana is an extinct language isolate formerly spoken in north-central California between the Feather and Pit rivers in what is now Shasta and Tehama counties....

    Yahi language
    Yahi is an extinct language formerly spoken in the upper Sacramento Valley area, roughly in the area between Mill Creek and Deer Creek. It is grouped with the Southern forms of the Yana languages which, together with Central and Northern Yana are an isolated group of languages...

     and other Hokan languages
    Hokan languages
    The Hokan language family is a hypothetical grouping of a dozen small language families spoken in California, Arizona and Mexico. In nearly a century since Edward Sapir first proposed the "Hokan" hypothesis, little additional evidence has been found that these families were related to each other...

South America

  • Aymaran languages
    Aymaran languages
    Aymaran is one of the two dominant language families of the central Andes, along with Quechuan....

  • Quechuan languages
  • Tupi–Guaraní languages
  • Many Amazonian languages
  • Mapudungun
    The Mapuche language, Mapudungun is a language isolate spoken in south-central Chile and west central Argentina by the Mapuche people. It is also spelled Mapuzugun and sometimes called Mapudungu or Araucanian...


  • many Papuan languages
    Papuan languages
    The Papuan languages are those languages of the western Pacific which are neither Austronesian nor Australian. The term does not presuppose a genetic relationship. The concept of Papuan peoples as distinct from Melanesians was first suggested and named by Sidney Herbert Ray in 1892.-The...

     (e.g. Awtuw
    Awtuw language
    Awtuw , also known as Kamnum, is spoken in Sandaun Province, Papua New Guinea. It is a polysynthetic language closely related to Karawa and Pouye.It is an endangered language, being widely replaced by Tok Pisin.-References:...

    , Yimas
    Yimas language
    The Yimas language is spoken by the Yimas people of Papua New Guinea. It is a polysynthetic language with free word order. It is an ergative-absolutive language morphologically but not syntactically, although it has several other case-like relations encoded on its verbs...

  • northern Australian languages (e.g. Bininj Gun-wok, Gunwinyguan
    Gunwinyguan languages
    The Gunwinyguan languages form the second largest family of Australian Aboriginal languages. They are spoken in Arnhem Land in northern Australia. The most populous language is Gunwinygu, with some 1500 speakers....

    , Murrinh-patha
    Murrinh-patha language
    Murrinh-patha , sometimes also called Garama, is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken by over 1,500 people, most of whom live in Wadeye in the Northern Territory, where it is the dominant language of the community...

    , Ngalakgan, Rembarrnga, Tiwi
    Tiwi language
    Tiwi is an Australian Aboriginal language spoken on the Tiwi Islands, within sight of the coast of northern Australia. It is one of about 10% of Australian languages still being learned by children....

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