Wondering what a good example language is where, when you combine "prefixes" or "suffixes" to a base, it (a) changes the phonetic form of the word in certain places, and (b) this specific pattern only applies to a few instances of verbs, which means (c) that there are lots of patterns for verbs (or nouns or other word classes).

I'm not talking about orthography, in which case maybe French would be a good example candidate. I am specifically talking about phonetically, which could result in orthographic changes too.

The reason for asking is because in coming from a language like Spanish, you get the sense that all these verbs were constructed in advance with the goal of creating this "uniform" system or pattern that all verbs follow. There are 6 slots to fill in with different values. Then with nouns there are the two genders with o and a in a lot of cases. In Spanish there are the -ar, -er, and -ir verbs, with a few irregular ones here and there. But the pattern applies to a lot of verbs.

Currently, I am not too sure how natural this is, i.e. how often it would evolve into a system like this. The first grammar I looked at didn't follow this pattern and instead it was as if there were 50 different verb patterns that each applied to only 20 or so verbs max. That's what I mean by "lots of agglutination/fusion/inflection without a lot of regularity", there aren't really patterns that apply across broad swaths of word classes. Instead there are just many small patterns that apply to a few things, it seems because they are tailoring the phonology differently in each case, as one reason.

  • Among major living languages, Russian and Arabic, but neither is agglutinative. – Adam Bittlingmayer Oct 22 '18 at 15:11

Look at verbs in Ancient Greek, the older the better (since it regularized over time).

In Ancient Greek, affixes on the stem indicate tense, voice, and mood. For example, e-le-ly-k-ei means "he had released it": I'd gloss it as PAST-PERF-release-ACT-3P.SG. Except it's not quite this straightforward.

Sometimes there are multiple affixes with the same meaning, and the choice of which to use is unpredictable and different verbs do different things…and sometimes one verb will use both, with very slightly different meanings. Sometimes there will be two entirely different patterns: the "first aorist" and "second aorist" are different ways of marking the same tense-aspect combination, which not only use different sets of affixes, but change which set of affixes the person and number marking can use. Many verbs are "defective" (missing certain forms). Some verbs mark the present tense explicitly with an infix, while for others the present tense has a null affix. And so on and so on.

Generally, these verbs are learned with a list of six "principal parts", which can be used to construct all the other forms. Each tense-aspect-mood combination is learned on its own as a single "tense", since the individual affixes often aren't interchangeable between them: the present aorist and past aorist take totally different person-number suffixes, for example.

Over time, this system regularized out. Latin developed in a slightly different direction but you can basically see it as a later stage in the regularization process, putting most verbs into four fairly-regular conjugation patterns and requiring fewer principal parts. But those principal parts are still necessary to know, for instance, whether the past aoristic is formed with -s-, with -v-, with reduplication, or by some other means—you can't always predict this without knowing the specific verb.

Spanish has gone further and reduced these four to three, as you mention, with no principal parts required—the stem and the conjugation pattern are all you need.

  • Now wondering how Ancient Greek got there :). Maybe they just started out that way from an earlier system. Can't find much (briefly looking) on where Ancient Greek came from. Some say Balkans stuff, other Graeco-Armenian 5k BCE, or Proto-Indo-European then. First written language is around 3k BCE. So seems like we may not have any theories on how Ancient Greek grammar came about. – Lance Pollard Oct 21 '18 at 4:32
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    @LancePollard Ancient Greek came from Proto-Greek (aka Proto-Hellenic) which came from Proto-Indo-European; some people try to go back even farther to "Nostratic" or the like, but they're generally not taken seriously. PIE is as far back as we can reconstruct with any certainty. – Draconis Oct 21 '18 at 4:45
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    And PIE evidently had a system at least this complicated. If you look at Homeric Greek, be sure to look at Sanskrit, too. – jlawler Oct 22 '18 at 15:54

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