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In diachronic comparison of languages, say PIE to Latin to Romance, it is a classic recognition that the later languages strictly lose some of the morphologically marked categories. PIE had 8 noun cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, etc), Latin 5, Romance 2 or even 1. Pick a morphological category and pretty much always the complexity is reduced: past participles in English are more likely to become weak rather than strong, the subjunctive is disappearing, there's no grammatical gender at all.

Presumably those forms (that were later lost) came from somewhere, those categories and phonological markers were created. I can imagine a cycle of inflected to isolating (a period of loss) and then back to inflectional where the grammatical markers get phonologically assimilated (fused onto the root), but i have no data to support this.

I feel like I heard a long time ago that Finnish/Hungarian/Turkish might be gaining distinctions or that the word initial inflections in verbs in Irish came from phonological interaction between a pronoun and the following verb, but those are just vague intimations. I am looking for more substantively presented examples.

Is there any definitive data of a language moving from isolating to inflected? Present day examples are best, but attested versions (not theoretical) from the past would be good too.

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Latin has six cases: Nominative, Accusative, Vocative, Genitive, Dative, Ablative. –  Alenanno Sep 14 '11 at 17:58
Bah vocative is only a case because it was the easiest way to deal with it d-; –  hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 18:21
It's still a case, though. :P –  Alenanno Sep 14 '11 at 18:23
If vocative is a case then "oh" in English is a preposition. d-; –  hippietrail Sep 14 '11 at 20:51
@hippietrail don't you mean an article? :-) –  James Tauber Sep 18 '11 at 16:08

8 Answers 8

In Spanish, infinitives and imperatives have their object-pronouns attached to them, as in dámelo ("give it to me"), a compound of da ("give"), me ("to me"), lo ("it"). To me, these look like proto-conjugations. In particular, they have already begun to develop irregularities: "give it to him" should logically be dálelo, but some sort of euphonic change (not sure what this is called) has changed the middle consonant to s, creating the modern Spanish dáselo. With a few more such changes, this simple agglutination may someday become become a "morphological category" as impenetrable as the Latin noun.

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I always thought of that as an orthographical convention, but the sound change does give evidence that it is more than that. –  Mitch Sep 15 '11 at 14:04
There are actually more irregularities popping up in "non-standard" Central American dialects, but I can't remember the details offhand--apparently people say dáselos for "Give it to them," which should logically be dáleslo and "correctly" dáselo. –  Anschel Schaffer-Cohen Sep 15 '11 at 16:04
Yes is Central America I believe you can hear loismo, laismo, and of course voseo. –  hippietrail Sep 18 '11 at 18:43
@hippietrail: True, but I don't think what I'm describing is any of those three. –  Anschel Schaffer-Cohen Sep 18 '11 at 20:23
@Anschel Schaffer-Cohen: The 'change' from "dámelo" to "dáselo" is way more general than you point out. "se" is a word in Spanish that occurs as a standalone particle too, as in "se lo dije" (I said it to him/her) rather than the incorrect "le lo dije". Just checking that you are aware of this. :-) –  CesarGon Sep 20 '11 at 21:55

Inflectional markers can come from originally isolated words (e.g. pronouns) so there is definitely a cycle where:

  1. separate words become clitics
  2. clitics become inflections
  3. inflections get reanalyzed as part of the stem
  4. inflectional syncretism takes place
  5. separate words are introduced to disambiguate the syncretism
  6. rinse-and-repeat
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Yes, that's the description of the phenomenon I'm wondering about. But do you have any actual examples? Separately, any examples for which the inflectional syncretism has been taking place in the past century or so? –  Mitch Sep 18 '11 at 16:37
For syncretism, see the Surrey Morphology Group's database at smg.surrey.ac.uk/Syncretism –  James Tauber Sep 18 '11 at 16:41
I find that site hard to judge. Can you spell out one example from there that shows that there is a diachronic change where a clitic is becoming an inflection (or whatever it is)? –  Mitch Sep 18 '11 at 20:09
One of the classic examples in English is let us > let's > lets but see any book on Grammaticalization for other examples –  James Tauber Sep 19 '11 at 14:11
Good sporadic example. Sorry to be picky, but it is not of the majority of clitics moving to inflections. Are any of the examples at the syncretism website you gave more substantial (and can you explain one)? –  Mitch Sep 19 '11 at 14:44

I can't think of examples off the top of my head, but I'm sure you can find some in the work of linguists like Elly van Gelderen, who has a theory about exactly what you're talking about ("the linguistic cycle"), and I believe has written or edited at least one book about it recently. You probably should also take a look at the grammaticalization literature. I think Joan Bybee might be a good place to start, if you haven't already.

This is not absolutely precisely the question you asked, but you might also find this article interesting. It claims roughly that morphological systems tend to get simpler as speaker population increases. As you might imagine, it's controversial in some quarters.

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Excellent references...I'll take a look. But for the sake of Linguistics.SE, can you add to your answer at least one example? –  Mitch Sep 15 '11 at 13:56
Here's a class handout on the Grammaticalization cycle. –  jlawler Apr 12 '13 at 21:34

It has been argued that in French, subject pronouns are in the process of becoming inflectional elements. Culbertson (2010) "Convergent evidence for Categorial Change in French" Language vol. 86 num. 1 is a recent paper arguing this hypothesis.

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For the sake of linguistics.SE, can you spell out an example from the paper here? –  Mitch Sep 15 '11 at 14:02

In languages with serial verb constructions, some standardized verbs are reanalyzed as cases, for instance in Akan a sentence that is glossed "Kofi take knife cut meat" it can be argued that "take" is an instrumental. "give" this often becomes a dative-marker, "have" turns into a genitive etc. Hm, was that in Paul Schachters paper in Language Typology and Syntactic Description?

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So is this an historical process, changes that have occurred over years, or is it a reanalysis of what is going on now? –  Mitch Sep 14 '11 at 20:39
Various languages are in different stages on that particular cline. It's commonly discussed in works on serial verb constructions in African languages, and let me see if I have that really nice paper by Larson here... Larson, R. (1991) "Some issues in verb serialization" semlab5.sbs.sunysb.edu/~rlarson/larson91serialVs.pdf –  kaleissin Sep 14 '11 at 21:14
I recommend that you put the link to that paper into the answer. I think we should encourage more answers that actually refer to the linguistic literature. –  JSBձոգչ Sep 15 '11 at 11:52

I think such fusion of morphemes onto word-roots to form morphological categories is happening in spoken language, but in today’s world where languages tend to have standardised orthographies, they are seen as colloquial, corrupted, or uneducated, and thus are considered by linguists to be not worth analysing.

For example, I would argue that most dialects of English already have forms such as gimme, givya, givim/giver, givus, givyall and givem. In standard orthography they would be written as give me etc., but we all know most people pronounce them as these fused forms. So the real question is when these will become established orthography, and my suspicion is that it will never happen given how strongly English spelling resists reform despite its clearly showing age.

Also, if I may add a claim that I cannot substantiate, I thought I read somewhere that PIE had only two genders (animate and inanimate). If this is indeed the case, the distinction between masculine and feminine was gained at some point. I think it was said that the feminine evolved out of the plural of inanimates; I don’t know exactly how that’s supposed to work, but it would explain why neuter nominative plural and feminine nominative singular tend to have the same ending, -a, in many IE languages.

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I know there's been lots of scholarly research into PIE, but I still have misgivings about making inferences about it as though it were a language with extant text to check hypotheses. (that is, I feel like it is too easy to take as facts about it things that were simply hypotheses or guesses made in the reconstruction. –  Mitch Sep 14 '11 at 19:38
"they are seen as colloquial, corrupted, or uneducated, and thus are considered by linguists to be not worth analysing." I don't know which linguists you have in mind. Most of the ones I know subscribe to the generally accepted principle that non-stantard varieties of language are perfectly legitimate and are often very interesting to study. –  Alan H. Sep 14 '11 at 23:37
@Timwi: your 'gimme' examples are in the right spirit. However, (maybe I'm too stuck on the romance examples of inflection), the conversion of object pronouns to verb inflections seems out of the ordinary, since most verb inflections are about agreement with the subject. All I know are Indo-European style inflections...any examples of Semitic or Dravidian? –  Mitch Sep 15 '11 at 14:01

[...] the word initial inflections in verbs in Irish came from phonological interaction between a pronoun and the following verb [...]

I'm not quite sure what you mean here.

Irish is VSO. As such, a verb very rarely (if indeed ever) follows a pronoun:

Chonaic  mé    an       cailín.
Saw-PRET I-NOM the-SING girl-MASC.

We can see the use of prepositions (more so the associate agreements) in Irish affecting the past tense, though. Traditionally, the past tense was created by preceding the infinitive with to preposition "do" (Ith -> D'ith), which causes a lenition (Bí -> Do bhí -> Bhí).

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On looking things up, frankly I have no idea where my Irish idea came from. I'll research (so far Swahili is the only example I've found with prefix inflections but they don't have the sound changes I remember reading. –  Mitch Jan 23 '13 at 0:34
Swahili is a little outside my comfort zone! –  Richard King Jan 23 '13 at 3:30

Even the languages you mentioned as losing inflections in your question gained others, several of the inflections of verbs in romance languages came from periphrastic constructions in vulgar latin, most prominent the future and conditional tenses, for example, french "tiendrai, tiendras, tiendra, tiendrons, tiendrez, tiendront" come from contractions of tenire and a conjugation of habere in latin, the resemblance in the future tense suffixes and conjugations of avoir can even be seen in the modern language, "ai as a avons avez ont". The conditional endings are of a similar origin, coming from a fusion of the infinitive and the imperfect conjugations of habere. I'm surprised no one above me mentioned this.

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This is the grammaticalization cycle mentioned by John Lawler and James Tauber. –  Mitch Jun 9 at 2:54

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