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Agglutinative languages

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Joined 5405 days ago

38 posts - 41 votes
Speaks: English*
Studies: Italian

 Message 1 of 27
04 September 2014 at 9:14pm | IP Logged 
If you have learnt an agglutinative language like Turkish or Korean, how did you go about
understanding the vastly different syntax? It appears like quite a mountain to climb and
I'm interested in understanding how you can transition from putting a word at the end of
your sentence to the front of it. In fact, I'm interested in agglutinative languages in an
even more general sense. If you have any contributions or anecdotes about this kind of
language I would love to hear them.
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Senior Member
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Speaks: English*, French
Studies: Polish, Slovak, Uzbek, Turkish, Korean, Finnish

 Message 2 of 27
04 September 2014 at 9:54pm | IP Logged 
The syntax of an agglutinative language has just been something for me to learn. I've generally tackled it by drilling, reading about it in my textbooks, and constructing sentences when sending emails to friends or speaking.

Syntax is a worthy sub-field of study in linguistics and as a casual learner trying to link it with morphological typology (e.g. analytic vs. synthetic (covers polysynthesis and fusion in addition to agglutination)) it may lead you to getting in over your head.

As for the classic examples in agglutinative languages, I've found that it was best to look at the function syntax played in expressing concepts for which other languages don't use syntax.

Finnish examples of "strange" or "novel" uses of syntax for me included:

1) Changes in syntax to suggest (in)definiteness and/or indicate new information. (N.B. Finnish doesn't use articles to mark (in)definiteness)

e.g. Change in syntax contributes to signalling information about definiteness

Vesi on lasissa. "(The) water is in a/the glass."
Lasissa on vettä. "There's (some) water in a/the glass."

e.g. Syntax aligns to convention for signalling "new" information.

Milloin hän tulee? "When is (s)he coming?" (literally: "When (s)he comes?")
Hän tulee huomenna. "(S)he is coming tomorrow."

Basically, the section for "new" information as in answering a question goes at the end of the sentence. You wouldn't expect Huomenna hän tulee or Huomenna tulee hän unless maybe you were exercising poetic license.

Hungarian syntax can be even tougher to grasp because the only practical rule is that the sentence's focused element must precede the main verb. Apart from that there seems to be a certain sequence observed when placing adverbs and prefixes although I've never been able to find or come up formally with a consistent set of rules. I usually express myself in Hunarian in ways that "sound right" based on exposure. In any case, I don't think that the complexity of Hungarian syntax has much to do with Hungarian being an agglutinative language.

Mit olvastál? - A leveledet (olvastam). "What were you reading? - (I was reading) your letter."
Mit olvastál el? - A leveledet (olvastam el). "What did you read? - (I read) your letter."
El kell olvasnom a leveledet. "I must read [to completion] your letter."
Nem olvasom el a leveledet. "I won't read your letter."
Szeretném elolvasni a leveledet. "I would like to read [to completion] your letter."
Olvasd el a levelemet! "Read [to completion] my letter!"
Mikor olvastad a levelemet? - Tegnap (olvastam). "When were you reading my letter? - (I was reading it) yesterday."
Mikor olvastad el a levelemet? - Tegnap (olvastam el). "When did you read / finish reading my letter? - (I read it / finished reading it) yesterday."

There's even a fairly technical book on the subject ("The Syntax of Hungarian")on my shelf that I've not been able to penetrate.
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Senior Member
Joined 4720 days ago

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Speaks: German*, English, French, Latin, Italian, Russian, Swedish
Studies: Japanese, Irish, Portuguese, Persian

 Message 3 of 27
04 September 2014 at 10:02pm | IP Logged 
I'm studying Japanese, which is an agglutinative language, and I honestly don't understand your question.

Okay, the normal word order in Japanese is SOV instead of the English SVO, but you get used to it. You also get used to putting relative clauses in front of the noun they describe instead of putting them behind it. It's just a matter of practice.

Rome wasn't built in a day. If you start with easy sentences and progress slowly, you have plenty of time to internalize the different word order and learn complex syntax step-by-step.

Edited by Josquin on 04 September 2014 at 10:05pm

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Senior Member
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Speaks: Finnish*, English, Swedish
Studies: Russian

 Message 4 of 27
04 September 2014 at 10:07pm | IP Logged 
As a native of a notoriously agglutinative language, I can probably weigh in something.

So basically inflectional forms are like syntactical tags that figuratively "paint" the words a certain color, for example if the subject always looks a certain way (let's say for the sake of clarity that the subject is blue) you don't need to analyze its part in the sentence; the very fact that this word is 'blue' makes it easy to spot out of the sentence.

Let's take a few examples that I'm going to pull out of some Finnish news sites:

"Argentiinasta on löytynyt harvinainen dinosauruksen fossiili." (
Argentina-from is found-refl rare dinosaur-of fossil
A rare dinosaur fossil was found in Argentina.

So let's look at the elements:
"Argentiinasta" - the ending is that of a local case; it indicates that this word can't be a grammatical element, but only an adverbial answering the question "whence?"

"on löytynyt" - 'is found', this is the predicative of the sentence

"harvinainen dinosauruksen fossiili" - this phrase's head word <fossiili> is in the nominative case, which is the case of the subject.

I've been studying agglutinative languages in my time and the advice I would give is just this: analyze each element as it comes. Lately I've been studying Basque and it has an interesting mechanism for separating syntactical elements;

Mutil txikia da
boy small-(end) is
(He) is a small boy.

Mutila txikia da
boy-(end) small-(end) is
The boy is small.

As all complements come after the head word, you just have to wait for the ender -a (or a demonstrative pronoun) to 'wrap up' the noun phrase.
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Senior Member
Russian Federation
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 Message 5 of 27
04 September 2014 at 10:53pm | IP Logged 
As a Russian I haven't had much difficulties with the Finnish syntax. Not all IE languages are like English - even Italian has a somewhat more free word order, though obviously it's nowhere near Latin. I think this applies to many IE languages, like for example Hindi too.
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Humbaraci Ahmet
United Kingdom
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Speaks: Italian*, EnglishC2, German, French
Studies: Turkish

 Message 6 of 27
04 September 2014 at 11:34pm | IP Logged 
I have been studying Turkish for a year now. I think.that trying to relate agglutination
to difficulty would be a bit meaningless; in the end I had to put myself in a totally
different mindset, but I suspect it would have been the same with any other non-
Indoeuropean language, be it agglutinative or not. And, in the end, I came to love the
clear, logical way in which TUrkish sentenced are structured. As far as vowel harmony
goes, it doesn't take more than 3 hours to learn.
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 Message 7 of 27
05 September 2014 at 1:10am | IP Logged 
Josquin wrote:
If you start with easy sentences and progress slowly, you have plenty of time to internalize the different word order and learn complex syntax step-by-step.

Josquin's advice is dead on when it comes to internalizing Turkish's grammar and syntax.

Start small, grow from there. When I first started learning Turkish, I thought I'd never be able to wrap my head around it. After a few years, I now look at it as really quite elegant. Although, don't get me wrong - long sentences can still be a nightmare, but at least you know you can work your way through it due to its regularity, and really, you'll only run into such nightmares in literature. Normal colloquial conversation isn't nearly as complex.

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 Message 8 of 27
05 September 2014 at 1:14am | IP Logged 
The concepts behind agglutination aren't that hard. For Turkish in particular the
patterns are nice and regular - you don't have the endless variations you get in other

Someone - was it Chung? - wrote on here that Turkish was an 'easy language that takes
a long time to learn.'   And the only way I know to learn it is to 1) learn the basic
rules (my recommendation: Teach Yourself Turkish), and then 2) drill baby drill
(my recommendation: FSI Basic).

The hardest part for me wasn't learning the rules so much as learning to hear
the changes in practice. Because Turkish doesn't just agglutinate stuff onto the end
of the word like a better-behaved language would; it adds things right in the middle
of it all. So you get:

ediyorum - I am doing
ediyor muyum? - Am I doing?
etmiyorum - I am not doing
etmiyor muyum? - Am I not doing?
ediyordum - I was doing
ediyormuşum - it seems I was doing

It seemed 'normal' to me that case endings would go on the end of a word, and it took
awhile for it to feel natural to do it otherwise.

IN terms of 'how you transition,' I'm with others in that I don't fully understand the
question. Every language has a whole new set of concepts for us, and we learn them
from the ground up.    When I was in school I had to force myself to stop placing
English patterns on my Latin and French. These days my brain just seems to accept
that each language gets its own new pattern.   That comes with time and practice.

Though an intimidating Latin teacher can speed the process along.

Edited by kanewai on 05 September 2014 at 1:16am

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