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I would like to know which natural languages are grammatically the most regular and irregular. There are several titbit articles on the web but none are definitive or explanatory.

By regular, I want to mean that the are well-defined rules to derive words from root, and to make plurals, gender plays no role or has the well-defined way to determine gender, etc.

e.g.,

  • German is highly irregular in terms of pluralization than English. Kind-Kinder, Vater-Väter, das Mädchen-die Mädchen
  • Gender is a headache in German, Spanish, Hindi etc. but not in English because except from changing he to she, there is no role of gender in forming sentence.
  • English, although less than German, is fairly irregular in word formation such as good-better-best, go-goes-went, eat-eats-ate etc.

I heard Turkish is somewhat regular, but I have no knowledge about how. I also don't know if there are many languages more regular than Turkish or not.

Can you please elaborate?

  • Just to make it explicit, the question is focused on morphological regularity, right? – Gaston Ümlaut Feb 28 '16 at 21:21
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We have no quantitative metric of irregularity so the best you can hope for are ballpark figures. Also, your conception of regularity (which includes complexity) doesn't exactly match the concept of regularity used in linguistics – Classical Arabic verb conjugation is very complex, but not very irregular in the technical sense. In constructing a word in any language, the typical linguistic analysis is to discern a "base form" for the involved morphemes, which allows you to write rules generating all of the related word forms. That base form is not always some actual word of the language, thus the base form for the verb "be" in Classical Arabic is /kwn/, and kwn is not a possible word of Arabic. There are many regular but complex rules involved in getting a particular word form in Arabic. Given the linguist's viewpoint on regularity, having many rules does not create irregularity: rather, you have irregularity when formatives have to be arbitrarily (lexically) flagged as triggering or not triggering some process.

Again assuming the standard linguistic understanding of regularity / lexicality and the derivation of morphologically complex forms, it would be right to say that gender (be it animacy, sex, or noun-class type) constitutes a kind of irregularity. However, from the popular perspective "learn a word, and heuristically generate related forms based on that", gender is a headache in Germanic but not Spanish, since in learning the citation form of the noun, you can discern the gender most of the time (the real irregularities aren't enough to cause a headache). In some Bantu languages, the difference on this front between linguist's irregularity and popular irregularity is even more striking, since there are over a half-dozen pattern-classes that you just have to learn – but, when you learn the singular (e.g. in Kikuyu) the gender of the noun becomes obvious, since like with Spanish, the basic form of the word that you learn includes the arbitrary gender morpheme that you just have to memorize.

That said, Vietnamese would come in on the most-regular end of the scale, since there are apparently no irregularities or changes in form, whereas there are some idiosyncratic consonant insertions / deletions in Turkish inflection. Dinka comes in on the least-regular end of the scale. Formation of noun plurals is extremely chaotic and arbitrary, and you effectively have to learn singular and plurals. Apparently, outside of a certain core of vocabulary, speakers don't widely agree on singular and plural forms.

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  • Quechua is another language with (if I'm not mistaken) no morphological irregularity at all. Finnish comes pretty close. On the whole agglutinative languages tend to be more regular than synthetic ones, it seems. – TKR Feb 28 '16 at 1:07
  • There are some lexical exceptions and non-productive gradation patterns (auto does not undergo gradation, paras inflects irregularly), but Finnish is pretty regular as long as you set up the right underlying forms, analogous to how Arabic is pretty regular. I think that Imbabura Quechua is the "most regular" of the Quechua languages, and it does have a fair amount of inflectional irregularity in verbs -- though it's not root-governed (e.g. 1st person /ni/ → [n] in the plural; 3rd person /n/ → Ø in the past). It depends on what counts as an "irregularity". – user6726 Feb 28 '16 at 1:35
  • Hi, I have slightly changed the question, see edit log. Comment if it still makes no sense. – MAKZ Feb 28 '16 at 4:16

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