Is there a natural language w/ no morphology (i.e. one that has neither inflectional nor derivational morphology -- in other words, no affixation whatsoever)? I've heard claims to the effect, but the (admittedly very few) candidates that I've looked at (viz. Yoruba, Cantonese, Vietnamese) still have some (either inflectional or derivational) morphology

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    How could a language have no derivational morphology? Would it supposedly just use multi-word constructions like "not X" instead of "unX", "without X" instead of "Xless", and compounds where neither part is more grammaticalized than the other? I feel like this relates to the idea of a "purely monosyllabic" language that is also often applied to certain East Asian languages, even though my impression is that most, if not all of these languages have some words of more than one syllable. Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 22:51
  • @sumelic It would have to be a language w/ root morphemes exclusively (but one that could, theoretically, allow compounding them to make compound words). Syllables are besides the point (they pertain to phonology not morphology)
    – jaam
    Commented Jul 2, 2018 at 23:02

2 Answers 2


Vietnamese has no affixation at all, though it does have syntax. New words can (in principle) be formed out of thin air, or borrowed from other languages: so word-formation is possible in Vietnamese, and many people equate morphology with "word-formation" (I don't: I use "morphology" only to refer to grammatical word formation). There is also reduplication, which is a kind of morphology i.e. it is in the grammar (as are ablaut, process, and prosodic-pattern means of word-formation), so Vietnamese may not be the language that you are looking for, depending on whether you really depend on "affixation" as the distinguishing criterion.

The Chadic language Angas might come a little closer to having no morphology. It has two things that are just floating tones, which appear at the end of certain phrases in certain syntactic contexts (for example, an NP before a VP, a direct object NP before an indirect object). What is being marked is a grammatical relationship between higher-level phrases, and not some property of particular words. Syntactically, this is usually treated as the concatenation of a phrase-final marker and whatever word cones before it. However, it is phonetically realized as a change in the tone of whatever precedes it. So this could simply be syntax (positioning of a marker) plus phonology (realization of a floating tone within another word), and not morphology.

In other words, it depends on what your criteria are for calling something "morphology".

  • Thanks. By what criterion has Vietnamese no affixation? Phonological (gaps between the would-be affixes)? Here it claims some affixation in Vietnamese, so probably by a different criterion. PS. Word-formation and word-introduction (borrowing, inventing, etc.) are entirely different things, as only the former is productive (i.e. rule-based)
    – jaam
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 19:28
  • This is a case where diagnosing affixes as opposed to syntactic concatenations makes the difference. For example, is "dial up" a concatenation of morphemes within one word, or a concatenation of words forming some kind of phrase? Similarly, are compounds in English single words, or tight-knit syntactic collocations? That may be an old-fashioned analysis, based on the presence of a written space between the elements.
    – user6726
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 19:49
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    Noyer in the paper "Vietnamese 'morphology' and the definition of word" discusses this and casts doubt on the possibility of making a meaningful distinction between syntax and morphology (which has pretty much been rejected in contemporary work)
    – user6726
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 19:50
  • I don't mind using a phonological (or whatever sensible) criterion here. My question was more "are there phonological gaps"? If there are, fine, let it fall outside morphology (by this criterion). If there are not, what other criterion are you using? I also saw blanks between the written morphemes but, knowing nothing about Vietnamese phonology or ortography, I'm not sure they coincide w/ phonological gaps. Are you?
    – jaam
    Commented Jul 3, 2018 at 20:43
  • @jaam: Vietnamese is typically written with spaces between all syllables. I'm not sure what you mean by "phonological gap"; syllable division seems like it is phonological. Commented Jul 5, 2018 at 20:54

I have a feeling that this question has been asked somewhere, or maybe it's about monosyllabic languages. Anyways, while modern Mandarin Chinese is less isolating and indeed has words consisting of multiple syllables/with parts tucked on to some sort of inflectional effect (e.g. "-了" which is similar to the past tense inflection in English), the Classical Chinese is supposed to be purely isolating, i.e. each syllable in the text strictly forms a meaning unit, and there is no inflectional affixation whatsoever, if that's what you're looking for.

Note that this doesn't necessarily mean that the oral languages of ancient China were purely isolating. Classical Chinese is more of a written form for formal documents/historical records etc. It's suggested that people could have spoken in a quite different way compared with how they wrote documents, or they could have pronounced what seems to be one character with multiple syllables, at least people of different regions. However this can hardly be corroborated.

Also note that if you're wondering about "derivational morphology", then the way new words are derived in Classical Chinese is by combining a radical with a phonetic component. IMO this is just another form of derivational morphology, however from the perspectives of linguists who view the whole radical component + phonetic component as one single "character", of course this cannot be morphology since morphology must occur across multiple characters/syllables. The whole idea of morphology is very much centered on western languages and when applied to ideographic languages there can be problems.

  • Can new words be derived that way? I had the impression that it isn't usual for new characters to be created in Chinese--in today's digital age, that seems like it would create difficulties with writing. Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 13:19
  • @sumelic That's why I said it's the way new characters were created in Classical Chinese. Probably didn't make it clear enough. Nowadays new words are either multi-character or new meanings added to an existing character.
    – xji
    Commented Jul 6, 2018 at 14:03
  • a) That Old Chinese had derivational morphology (which disappeared by Middle Chinese, and remains now as either separate words or tonal contrasts like 好 hao3/hao4) is pretty much the standard view, and not really 'can hardly be corroborated'. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 7:20
  • b) The point isn't whether morphology must occur across multiple characters/syllables. English -s doesn't constitute a syllable, and it's also morphology. The problem is that radicals and phonetic components aren't part of the spoken language. Written language is just a representation of spoken language, which is the focus of morphology. Literacy was not widespread until recent times, and people who spoke Chinese during all these years without knowledge of the writing system would not have knowledge of orthography and therefore of character-building concepts. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 7:21
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    I recommend looking at this paper: Baxter, W. H., & Sagart, L. (1998). Word formation in Old Chinese. In Packard, J.L. (Ed.), New approaches to Chinese Word Formation. Berlin-New York: Mouton de Gruyter. pp. 35-75. Commented Jul 7, 2018 at 12:12

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