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First, sorry if I'm not using the correct terminology here.

By "word-based", I mean typical Indo-European languages (plus Uralic) where there are only tens of characters (e.g. "A to Z" (Latin) or "А to Я" (Cyrillic)), and a character alone has no meaning, unless it happens to be a complete word ("I" in English is both a single letter and the nominative first person singular pronoun).

By "character-based", I mean languages like Chinese and Japanese, where any single character has its specific meaning.

I have wondered that, how would a word-based language to exist with absolute zero word inflection. A word inflection is like the plural form of a noun, or noun declension by case (Latin, German, Icelandic, Finnish etc.), or verb conjugation (Romance languages, East Slavic), or affix-based adjective and adverb distinction. Periphrastic affection doesn't count (e.g. Perfect "tenses" in English, which is constructed with auxiliary verb "have").

In Chinese, there's absolutely zero word inflection. Nouns do not have plurals or declension, verbs do not vary by tense or person, and they don't even have participles. This, IMO, relies heavily on the fact that Chinese is a character-based language.

English, AFAICT, is the language with the least word inflection features among all Indo-European languages. Nouns have at most 2 forms, and verbs have at most 5 forms (except "be"). Adjective only has one inflection (-ly turns into adverb).

How would such a language be, if word inflection fades away utterly?

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    Your use of "word-" and "character-based" is very idiosynctatic... why not call the alphabets "character-based" and the logographic systems "word-based"? In any case, the writing system makes no limitations on the grammar of the language! – curiousdannii Feb 9 at 8:49
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    Chinese when written in Pinyin. – Adam Bittlingmayer Feb 9 at 8:49
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    Your question betrays a fundamental confusion. Languages have no necessary connection whatever with scripts. Many languages have never been written. Some are written with more than one script. – Colin Fine Feb 9 at 12:03
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    Languages are "based" on sounds, not characters. Writing systems developed well after languages did, and specifically when Indo-European languages were likely rich with inflections already, while the Sinitic languages likely weren't. This is why I have voted down this question, as I believe like Colin Fine that its premise is fundamentally flawed. – LjL Feb 9 at 21:01
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    As far as isolating languages (languages without any morphology) go, the usual extreme examples are Vietnamese, and Keo (Austronesian, Indonesia), the latter seemingly having no morphology whatsoever. Both are quite successfully written with alphabetic systems. – Gaston Ümlaut Feb 9 at 22:16
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The problem is, things like "word-based" vs "character-based" as you put it (the standard words are alphabetic vs logographic) apply to writing systems, not languages. Languages, both historically and even nowadays, are spoken more often than they're written—you can find people who speak English, or Chinese, or almost any language, perfectly well, even though they can't read or write.

You're right that inflection and logographies don't fit together well. But languages can be (and often are) written in systems that aren't at all suited for them: look at the lengths English goes to, to represent 40-some phonemes with 26 letters, and the chaos that results. Japanese used to be written entirely with Chinese characters, which weren't a good fit for all its verb inflection—modern Japanese has repurposed a small subset of these characters into phonetic "kana", in an attempt to fix that problem.

In addition, the line between derivation (making new words) and inflection (changing the same word) isn't always a clear one. English has, at most, eight inflections: two on nouns, four on verbs, two on adjectives. Things like -ly are almost always considered derivation, not inflection. But what about -est? Is "largest" a new adjective, or just a form of "large"? Is 's an inflection or an enclitic? How do you even decide what counts as the same word and what doesn't?

So unfortunately, the best answer I can give is: this question can't be answered in its current state. It is probably true that Chinese kept a logography because it doesn't have inflection, while the Egyptian logography slowly turned into the Latin alphabet (via Semitic and Phoenician and Greek) because all those languages have more inflection. But this is a case of the language affecting the writing system, not the other way around.

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    It seems your answer implies that word inflection doesn't go well with logography, but I'm wondering about the reverse - if non-word-inflection goes well with an alphabetic system. – iBug Feb 9 at 3:09
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    OT: The English chaos, as far as I am aware, is not a direct result of the employment of alphabetics, but more directly results from the Great Vowel Shift from 13th century AD to 16th century AD. – iBug Feb 9 at 3:11
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    If you're talking about writing systems (and not languages), then inflection is a problem for logographic systems. Japanese has one syllabary used mostly for adding inflections to Chinese-based logographs. However, the type of inflection can affect the writing system. Semitic languages can get along with just consonants, because of the way they do inflections, for instance, and that's why Hebrew and Arabic are abjads. Sanskrit is heavily inflected, with a morphophonemic abugida that's far more accurate and complex than the Latin alphabet. – jlawler Feb 9 at 3:29
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    @iBug The Great Vowel Shift was totally regular; modern English isn't. Mostly English has used a bunch of kluges to get around the various problems it runs into (e.g. "we have too many vowels and not enough vowel letters, how do we stay unambiguous"), and while totally regular on their own, all the different conflicting systems make a huge inconsistent mess. – Draconis Feb 9 at 3:51
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There is no such categorization of languages as "word-based" vs. "character-based".

Not all Chinese speakers are literate. Standard Chinese has certainly been affected by the character-based writing system, and this affects how people speak, but linguists generally don't consider the paucity of inflection in Chinese to rely heavily on the existence of characters.

Vietnamese is currently written with an alphabet, but it doesn't seem to have any more inflection than Chinese.

Hawaiian seems to have no verb inflection, even though it is not written in characters, and I can't find much sign of any other word category being inflected either.

Having some amount of inflection seems to be pretty common, and the amount/types of inflection that we see in a language seems to be influenced somewhat by the region. The type of writing system that a language has is strongly influenced by its region: writing is only thought to have originated independently a small number of times. East Asia is a linguistic area where low levels of inflection are common, and Han-character-based writing systems have historically been used. This is not enough data to make a conclusion about whether there is a causal relationship in either direction between character-based writing systems and lack of inflection. There is no obvious linguistic obstacle to a language having no inflection and no character-based writing system.

  • Wonders about your last paragraph: If Chinese logography is completely replaced with Pinyin, it could be the next alphabetical language with zero inflection. Still, each Vietnamese "alphabetical word" matches its previous logographic characters one-on-one, and "characters" are still its minimal meaningful unit. – iBug Feb 9 at 3:15
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    @iBug: In Vietnamese, as in Chinese, Han characters were systematically mapped to single syllables in pronunciation, and vice versa. (The mapping is many-to-many in Chinese, and I assume was also in Vietnamese.) I don't know of a basis for saying that "characters" rather than "syllables" are the "minimal meaningful unit" of contemporary Vietnamese. – sumelic Feb 9 at 3:22
  • Though, we have seen logographies stop being logographic in several instances, when they were used for an inflected language. So the statement "logographies and inflection don't mix well" seems fair. – Draconis Feb 9 at 3:57
  • @Draconis: I don't think there's enough data to say that. Logographic writing systems can't be expected to remain logographic forever, especially when they are adapted to write another language; the change from a logography to something else isn't necessarily caused by the existence of inflections in the borrowing language. Mayan, Sumerian, and Egyptian had inflections, but still had "logographic" writing systems. – sumelic Feb 9 at 8:44
  • @sumelic But in both Sumerian and Egyptian, the system evolved away from logography and became more phonetic; the same thing happened when Han characters were used for Japanese. On the other hand Mandarin, Cantonese, etc have done fine with the Han logography for a long, long time. – Draconis Feb 9 at 16:32
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As mentioned by some other answers, your question confuses the features of the language and the features of the writing system used for it. Being written in alphabets or syllabaries has little to do with having a rich or minimal morphology (inflection is your word).


Besides, your claims on Chinese are a bit superficial. It is true that Chinese is close to the zero-morphology asymptote. But Mandarin for example has developed a r-suffix that can nominalize verbs: for example zuo3 "to sit" => zuor3 "seat". This is written by combining the original sign for zuo3 with a small er2 sign in the lower right corner. This feature is clearly a colloquial innovation of the area around BeiJing.

  • Erhua may be morphology, but based on your example, it doesn't seem to be inflectional. – sumelic Feb 10 at 18:18
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There is a variety of Chinese, Dungan, spoken by Muslims now living in Kirgistan and Kazakhstan, that is written alphabetically using the Cyrilic script. It is still typologically and genetically very close to mainland Chinese.

I think this language counts as an answer to your question.

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