I am just learning about agglutinative languages so I don't have much experience with them. I am looking at longest words for example words in a language like Finnish, but not sure yet if those would count as agglutinative. It looks like Hungarian, Turkish, and Japanese are also agglutinative.

I am mainly interested in how a large word is processed, and how a listener understands its meaning. I am just going to make up a hypothetical word to demonstrate the point.

In English we might say "They walked onto the dry, green grass in the middle of the day.". It is a bunch of words stringed together.

In an agglutinative language, my understanding is there are variations. Some of them allow flexible word placement, others fixed word placement. But agglutinative differ from polysynthetic in that they don't modify the affixes when joining to a word. That is, agglutinative languages have easily identifiable morphemes in large words, whereas polysynthetic ones don't.

Given that, you have a list of morphemes:


I am not sure exactly how it is done yet, but it sounds like you have a root and affixes. So let's say the root is walk, then it might be like this:


Somewhere in there there might be ~particles~ (not sure I'm using that word correctly yet), basically things to add the "in the middle of the day" sorts of things.

That's at least how I have seen similar things written when glossing.

What I'm wondering though, given this made up example, is how the sentence/word is understood. Because when it is written in that gloss form, it sounds like it would be an English sentence like this:

Walk they grass green dry day middle.

Basically it sounds like something you would tell a machine. It doesn't have that prose feel to it like the original English sentence. It feels like a bunch of words chained together. So I keep wondering if they are basically "parsing" this chain, and integrating it into a full picture, sort of thing. As an English speaker it's difficult to comprehend.

Which is why I'm wondering, how it is heard by a native speaker. If it is, in fact, heard as a chain of words, but since they are used to it it sounds normal. Or if it sounds differently.

Basically I'm trying to grasp intuitively what it feels like to comprehend an agglutinative language. It seems like it changes the way you would comprehend meaning, and so trying to get at what that actually means.

If one could provide a realistic example (long) word, and it's gloss/glossing, as well as it's English prose translation, and then explain how it is understood, that's pretty much what I'm hoping for.

  • It sounds like you're really asking about incorporating/polysynthetic languages more than agglutinative languages. English derivational morphology is pretty agglutinative, so you're already familiar with it.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 3 '18 at 14:29
  • 2
    Some of your questions would really be better answered by formal study. There is great value in following a curriculum over just chipping away at questions randomly as they come to you. If you're not in a position to study a normal degree at university, have a look at this question on online courses.
    – curiousdannii
    Sep 3 '18 at 14:46
  • @curiousdannii As much as I agree that some beginner questions could have more focus and fewer naive assumptions, it is not clear to me that a strict curriculum is necessary or efficient. Sep 3 '18 at 17:13
  • @curiousdannii Linguists like to say that being a linguist does not imply being a polyglot. That's true in theory and hogwash in practice. Learning a few foreign languages to a moderate level builds a good immunity against certain types of assumptions. Sep 3 '18 at 17:14

If you're curious about agglutination, look at English derivation. For example, suppose you'd never heard the word "unapproachable" before. You could quite easily break it down into un-approach-able. In other words, it describes something that you can't approach.

Agglutinating languages do the same thing, but for purposes that we'd relegate to syntax. Honestly, the main difference between agglutinating and isolating languages is what they consider to be "words" (and thus whether they're explained better by morphological theories or syntactic ones).

  • Would you count German as agglutinating? It's got, for example, the transitivising prefix be- which qualifies as "for purposes that we'd relegate to syntax"
    – OmarL
    Sep 7 '18 at 13:14

In English we might say "They walked onto the dry, green grass in the middle of the day.". It is a bunch of words stringed together.

In an agglutinative language,

This example will not tell us much. Plenty of agglutinative languages will have roughly the same set of words for this sentence as English has.

For example, in Turkish it will be "Günün ortasındaki kuru yeşil çimenlere yürüdüler.". That is roughly "Day-to middle-in-ly dry green grasses-to (they) walked."

The only exotic bits here for an English speaker are the postpositions, case endings, verb endings, pro-drop and of course the flexible word order, any of which can be found in non-agglutinative languages like Spanish or German.

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