For example, the probably most quoted sentence in a polysynthetic langauge (from Yupik):


tuntu-    ssur- qatar- ni-  ksaite- ngqiggte- uq  
reindeer- hunt- FUT-   say- NEG-    again-    3SG.IND  
"He had not yet said again that he was going to hunt reindeer."

How can you distinguish that from an, for example, isolating language:

tuntu ssur qatar ni ksaite ngqiggte uq

Another way to phrase this question is to ask "when is a word a word or multiple words"? In German, it is an "Automotor" while in English there are two words for the same thing "car engine".

(I am not a linguist, I am just a 16 year old guy that has interesting questions, please bear with me if this is a naive question in any way)

  • 2
    Actually, "car engine" is also a word in English. It's a compound word (composed of two words). Notice the stronger stress on the "car" part.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 5, 2017 at 19:56

3 Answers 3


The important feature is that in a polysynthetic language, a single word may contain more than one lexical root.
This means that e.g., to choose the most frequent example, a complex verb may not only contain the verbal root, but also an incorporated noun, which (as opposed to compounding) remains referentially autonomous (In compounds, transparency often gets lost, like straw in strawberry, while incorporated items keep their referential meaning more clearly.) and satisfies the verb's argument positions (When the verb requires an object, it will be satisfied by the noun that was incorporated so there are not any more words in the sentence that the verb would take to fill out one of its argument positions.).
The incorporated items are contained in the word complex in such a way that they may be surrounded by further morphemes (like prefixes, tense affixes or person inflection in verbs) which are an inherent part of the verb as well, so you can no longer regard the incorporated parts as separate words. They are actually an inherent part of the verb complex itself and cannot simply be detached without changing the word's meaning.

Velupillai (2012:109) illustrates the difference by the following example: enter image description here
enter image description here

"The crucial difference between synthetic and polysynthetic words is that the latter involve more than one lexeme. While the Turkish example in (49) is very long and involves a great deal of segments, there is only one lexeme, tan ‘know’. Polysynthetic words, however, may contain more than one lexeme: [...] The Alutor word contains three different lexemes, akka ‘son’, nalgə ‘skin’ and kuww ‘dry’." Therefore, while both words are equally long, "the Turkish word is synthetic while the Alutor word is polysynthetic."

As for the question of what a word is, this is a bit more difficult.

First of all, a word is a lexical unit that can stand on its own, so car is a word, engine is a word, blue and scream are too, but un- or -ation are not.
This mostly boils down to the distinction between free and bound morphemes, with some borderline cases like confixes (fanat-) or so-called cranberry morphemes (cran-berry).
Now since both car and engine can stand alone, the question is whether they are actually one or two words.

This is not always as easy, but there are certain properties of words which help to determine a word complexes status (partially relying on Velupillai (2012:117):

  • phonology: a word is pronounced as one phonological unit; this having consequences on, e.g., stress, as mentioned by @Atamari: There is a difference between mEtalworker (a person who works with metal) and metal wOrker (a worker made of metal, e.g. a robot) --> when stress is changed, a new word was formed; and you would assume the former to be one word and the latter two, because one could regard metalworker as an independent lexeme with a rather fixed meaning and possibly an own lexicon entry, while metal in metal worker is rather a modification that describes further properties of worker, but is not an inherent part of its meaning.
  • inflection: Compound words are typically inflected as one (by their head), rather then the invidual morphemes being inflected individually: footballs (not * feetballs), car engines (not * cars engines)
  • coherence: Words that behave as one unit can not get broken up by other words that, for example, modify them: new football (not * footnewball), broken car engine (not * car broken engine)
  • semantics: This makes use of the assumption that a word is the smallest unit in a sentence in which meaning is preserved; you could for example ask yourself whether a single (= "alone bringing-up" mother is still a single mother when she moves in with another single mother, i.e. whether single mother is one conventionalised word (usually meaning that the father is missing, not necessarily that the mother lives all alone) that preserves its meaning throughout different contexts, or whether single is barely a compositionally derived modification of mother that doesn't make sense to use compositionally in a different context.

There is also a difference between a morpho-syntactic word and a phonological word, e.g. the single phonological word don't (no pause in between, and in this case also morphological mering) consists of two morpho-syntactic words do and n't, which have certain morphological properties and are correspondingly represented in syntactic analysis.

I personally would actually argue that English car engine is just as much a compound as German Automotor is and thus to be seen as one word, due to the stress behaviour and due to its lexical status (One might assume that car engine has to some exted a conventionalised meaning and possibly even an own lexicon entry. Intuitively I'd say there is some difference in straightforward interpretability or meaning predictability when changing the word to racing car motor.), where idiosyncratic spelling rules should not influence linguistic categorisation too much.
See also this question for an attempt to describe when English compounds are separated by a space and when not (note that this question already presupposes that English compounds are indeed to be regarded as a word, the terminology would not make much sense otherwise, since compounding is by definition a word formation process).

Velupillai, Viveka. 2012. An introduction to linguistic typology. John Benjamins Publishing.

  • Stress is something non-existent in languages like Vietnamese. Could you try to address this problem?
    – GA1
    Jan 4, 2017 at 16:10
  • @GA1 I'm sorry, but I don't know enough about these languages to elaborate on that issue. Jan 4, 2017 at 16:13
  • That's ok but I think that a proper definition of word should not base on any particular language or language feature.
    – GA1
    Jan 4, 2017 at 16:20
  • 5
    +1. I've seen a book written by some anthropologist (Kroeber?) that is simply a compendium of definitions proposed for 'word', but I can't find a reference to it right now. My view is that every language distinguishes words, but there is no universal notion of what exactly a word is.
    – Greg Lee
    Jan 5, 2017 at 20:11

As you recognize, you have two distinct questions, one about word status and one about polysynthesis. The "one word or two" question is notoriously difficult to answer, and has no general solution (so people apply ad hoc criteria in deciding for a given language). The polysynthesis question depends on distinguishing word sequences from morphologically complex single words, so obvious the word question is most important. For example, people have used word stress as a criterion, and that may work in some cases, but there are plenty of languages with no identifiable "stress", or alternatively many stresses allowed in a word. The level of confusion on the "word" matter is so high that many people conclude that it is not an actually answerable question.

A simple test is the use of spaces: if you put a space in the middle, it's two words, if not, it's one word. Linguists don't generally like relying on spelling as a means of diagnosing linguistic (grammatical) analysis – but if "word" isn't a technical grammatical construct, then we don't care. The upshot of a half-century of generative grammatical research is that there isn't actually any reason to posit a technical concept "word". The distinction between "word" and "morpheme" is especially blurry in Minimalist theories of morphosyntax.

One direction that people have tried to go is to define "word" as being about "the minimum that you can utter". For example "permit" is typically analysed as a prefix and a suffix, but you can't utter the component parts, you can only utter the word. Well, you can utter [pr̩] (cats do it) and [mɪt] (catchers wear them), but those are semantically unrelated – so some concepts of semantic relatedness are usually also imposed on word analysis. However, "Automotor" is a word and yet it is not minimal. For this any many other reasons, technical grammarians have basically abandoned the concept "word" as an important construct.

Instead, we focus on the properties of various units, which contribute something or nothing to meaning and utterance formation.

  • You helped a lot! Especially the thing about "reordering words"... I chose to accept the other answer simply because it had more information.
    – Silvus
    Jul 27, 2016 at 7:00

In affixal polysynthetic languages such as Inuktitut, Yupik and Greenlandic the criterion is pretty simple, a word is composed of exactly one lexical stem and a number of bound morphemes. Cross-linguistically, words have one (primary) stress which helps reveal boundaries between them - with the exception of clitics.

In compositional polysynthetic languages an otherwise freely occurring stem is considered incorporated if it can't be moved out of its position within a compound word. Typically, nonspecific objects tend to be incorporated whilst specific objects tend to be adjuncts, though on this point languages differ quite a lot.

  • But isn't the point of polysynthesis that a word contains more than one lexical root (e.g. when a noun is incorporated in a verb) - or do you strictly mean lexical stem, i.e. inflectional stem? Jul 26, 2016 at 15:55
  • @lemontree No, that's not the point. What I meant is a stem which isn't a bound morpheme.
    – Atamiri
    Jul 26, 2016 at 16:08
  • Then what you described matches a derivation process (1 free morpheme + several bound morphemes), but I don't see the connection to polysynthesis, because incorporated morphemes are not bound either (they can stand alone). Jul 26, 2016 at 16:14
  • @lemontree There are affixal and compositional polysynthetic languages. Since the question was about Yupik, I've given the criterion for affixal polysynthetic languages, for there's no incorporation.
    – Atamiri
    Jul 26, 2016 at 16:26
  • Oh, okay. Maybe it would be could to include that distinction in your post and emphasize that Yupik is of the affixal type - I wasn't aware of it. Jul 26, 2016 at 16:44

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