Isolating Morphology


‘Chinese is a language with isolating morphology – in which each word tends to be a single isolated morpheme. An isolating language lacks both derivational and inflectional morphology. Using separate words, Chinese expresses certain content that an inflecting language might express with inflectional affixes. For example, whereas English has an inflectional possessive (the boy’s hat) and a so-called analytical possessive (hat of the boy), Chinese permits only hat of the boy possessives. Chinese also does not have tense markers, and on pronouns it does not mark distinctions of gender (he/she), number (she/they), or case (they/them). Where English has six words – he, she, him, her, they, and them – Chinese uses only a single word, though it can indicate plurality with a separate word. The sentence below illustrates the one-morpheme-per-word pattern typical of Chinese.

wo gang yao gei ni na yi bei cha
I just will give you that one cup tea.
‘I am about to bring you a cup of tea.’

Even more than Chinese, Vietnamese approximates the one-morpheme-per-word model that characterizes isolating languages.’

– Finegan. E. 2008. Language, Its Structure And Use Stamford, CT, United States: Cengage Learning (2012) p. 54

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7 thoughts on “Isolating Morphology

  1. Fascinating. I shall email to an acquaintance, a Chinese teacher who recently retired in the neighbourhood. Wonder what she’ll say to that.

  2. Good to know, because if the US doesn’t straighten its economic act, we’ll all be speaking it soon enough.

  3. Perhaps, this is why Asian people have trouble with part participles and plurals. Sometimes I receive emails at work saying “Hi, guy, see the report attach.”

  4. English should abandon the pronoun gender for gender equality reasons. I find those “he/she” rather awkward in writing and even more in spoken language. Using “she” when referring to a generic person, like “the user”, who could be male as well as female is also weird and is no different than using “he” – it still gives a preference to one gender over the other. Alternating “he” and “she” is confusing and poor style. All in all, it’s a major pain for writers and translators. There is a whole section in the preface to the NIV bible translation explaining how the translators had to replace “brothers” with “brothers and sisters”, “man” with “one” or “someone”, etc. to make the translation gender-neutral (if this is at all possible with the bible without neutralizing The Lord).

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