What's the difference between agglutinative and non-agglutinative languages when spoken? According to my understanding, agglutinative languages typically join prefixes and suffixes extensively.

For instance (although I'm probably a bit off here), the word gizon in Basque means man, gizona means a man; gizonarekin means with the man.

However, the written convention could easily have been perhaps gizon a for a man and gizon arekin for with the man. It would seem that Basque would no longer be an agglutinative language.

Similarly, one could write english (without speaking any differently) with long compound words like forthecats or howmanymen. Is the difference merely orthographical?

4 Answers 4


Since the question is about determining the morphological profile of a language, the issue of determining word boundaries is quite central. However, I don't agree with @Dan Milway that native speaker intuitions are relevant here.

Briefly, two arguments against native speaker intuition data on assessing wordhood: first, in practice morphologists do not support claims about wordhood on native speaker intuitions; instead, they offer language-internal evidence. Wordhood judgments have never served as a significant evidential base for morphological theory in the way grammaticality judgments have for syntactic theory. Second, (and not unrelated) native speaker judgments might somehow fail to reflect genuine linguistic intuitions (i.e. they may reflect spurious judgments) or may be inconsistent.

In agglutinative languages, the grammatical word typically has a templatic structure: there is a fixed order of morphemes in the word, such that the word grammar can be described by a fininte state grammar. For example, the verbal word in Athabaskan languages can be schematized according to the following template (Hoijer 1971, qtd. in Good 2011)

1 Zero, one or more adverbial prefixes
2 The prefix for the iterative paradigm (lacking in some languages)
3 A pluralizing prefix
4 An object pronoun prefix, found only in transitive verbs and some passives
5 A deictic subject prefix
6 Zero, one, or two adverbial prefixes
7 A prefix marking mode, tense, or aspect
8 A subject pronoun prefix
9 A classifier prefix
10 A stem

On the other hand, there are good reasons for treating FOR, THE, and CATS as separate grammatical words in the English "for the cats". There is no strict constraint on the sequencing and adjacency of the preposition, determiner and head noun in this phrase. It is possible to add words between FOR and THE, e.g. "for the majority of the cats", and it is possible to add words between THE and CATS, e.g. "for the seven most unexpectedly agressive cats". There are even constructions where it is possible to disrupt the usual linear order of FOR, THE, and CATS, e.g. "The cats I bought the food for..."; These kinds of things should be very restricted or completely impossible in a language where the equivalent of "for the cats" is a single grammatical word.

As for the Basque case, I am understanding that the Basque comitative postposition does not have a specific position with respect to a head noun, (i.e. it is at the end of the NP) so it not be considered an affix by the criterion I named above. One possibility is that it's a clitic (its linear position is not fixed, but it forms a phonological word with the adjacent material). Since the shape of =(re)kin is depend on the adjacent element, that is probably a good reason for writing it without a space. See Hualde 2002 on Basque postpositions.

Good, J. (2011) The typology of Templates. Language and Linguistics Compass Volume 5, Issue 10, pages 731–747, October 2011

Hualde, J.I. (2002) Regarding Basque postpositions and related matters in Erramu Boneta: A Festschrift for Rudolf P.G. de Rijk, ed. by Xabier Artiagoitia, Patxi Goenaga & Joseba Lakarra, 325-339. Bilbao:Univ. del PaísVasco/Euskal Herriko Unib. Supplements of ASJU 44

  • 2
    I'll admit that in my answer I was intentionally skirting the issue of what wordhood entails. Mainly because each field of linguistics seems to have a different definition of it. Prosodic word != morphological word != syntactic word.
    – Dan Milway
    Commented Nov 26, 2011 at 4:02
  • 1
    Thorough, excellent, learned answer. +1 Commented Sep 27, 2012 at 1:58

I would like to add a very important reminder here. I don't think it's a good idea to say that some languages are agglutinative and the others are not (isolating, inflectional etc.). This Humdoldtian-Schleicherian (individualizing) approach is flawed because:

  1. It recognizes one typological parameter, the morphological structure of words.

  2. It is based on an assumption that any language as a whole has a unique character (Croft 2003, p. 46), also see part 13.1 "Morphological typology" in Laurie Bauer's 2003 textbook.

In fact, even Sapir (in the 1920's!) criticized that approach. All intro textbooks still use those terms but in modern linguistic typological research, terms like "agglutinative/isolating languages" are no longer used/avoided.

As for wordhood tests, you should read Martin Haspelmath's 2011 paper in Folia Linguistica 45(1). He addresses all of your questions, and it is a very good review article.


Your question seems to boil down to: "How are word boundaries defined in a language?"

The answer to that question is, that we usually trust a native speaker's intuition. If a native Basque speaker says gizonarekin is one word, a linguist should believe her. Writing conventions in this respect are also usually trusted as reflections of speaker's intuition.

  • 5
    But how do we know what a native speaker's definition of "word" is? For most developed countries, it may be "Sequence of sounds ending where I would put a space in my writing system".
    – Alek Storm
    Commented Nov 25, 2011 at 21:42
  • @AlekStorm Even the writing system based definition you give depends on speaker intuition. Take the English orthography for example. We have a writing convention that says "put a single space between words." In order to follow that convention we need to have an intuition regarding word boundaries.
    – Dan Milway
    Commented Nov 26, 2011 at 4:17
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    I don't think I agree with this. Most literate speakers of standardized languages would intuit whatever the written standard dictates, thus it would be more down to tradition. Commented Nov 27, 2011 at 13:42
  • @hippietrail: It's a bit of a chicken and egg problem. Literate speakers know their spelling but this spelling results very often from intuition long before linguistics came into being as a science. Besides, spelling might sometimes go against the intuition of a particular speaker, or the speaker might not be sure what his or her intuition really is in a particualr case. A simple example: is *loanword" one or two words in English? (Both spellings exist.)
    – kamil-s
    Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 17:19
  • I agree that both intuition and orthographies are incomplete and have internal inconsistencies but I still think orthography affects literate speakers intuitions. Another active topic here right now is saying much the same that people don't intuit phonemes but do have intuitions based on letters for those languages which vaguely map letters to phonemes. Commented Feb 24, 2012 at 17:23

Agglutinative languages express the same thing shorter, i.e. with less characters. No difference, if written or spoken. They are more effective.

For example
In the garden kertben
In my garden kertemben
into my garden kertembe
about their garden kertjükről
and so on.

Yes, you are right, if endings were detached, the languages were not agglutinative any more, and became automatically less effective.

in the garden kert ben

  • This seems unlikely. Aren't fusional languages generally more condensed?
    – curiousdannii
    Commented Nov 16, 2022 at 21:40

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