Polysynthesis is informally understood as the packing of a large number of morphemes into single words, as in (1) from Bininj Gun-wok (Evans, in press).
'I cooked the wrong meat for them again.'
Its status as a distinct typological category into which some of the world’s languages fall, on a par with isolating, agglutinating, or fusional languages, has been controversial from the start. Nevertheless, researchers working with these languages are seldom in doubt as to their status as distinct from these other morphological types. This has been complicated by the fact that the speakers of such languages are largely limited to hunter-gatherers—or were so in the not too distant past—so the temptation is to link the phenomenon directly to way of life. This proves to be oversimplified, although it is certainly true that languages qualifying as polysynthetic are almost everywhere spoken in peripheral regions and are on the decline in the modern world—few children are learning them today.
Perhaps the most pervasive of the traits that give these languages the impression of a “special” status is that of holophrasis, which can be defined as the (possible) expression of what in less synthetic languages would be whole sentences in single complex (usually verbal) words. It turns out, however, that there is much greater variety among polysynthetic languages than is generally thought: there are few other traits that they all share, although distinct subtypes can in fact be distinguished, notably the affixing as opposed to the incorporating type.
These languages have considerable importance for the investigation of the diachronic complexification of languages in general and of language acquisition by children, as well as for theories of language universals. The sociolinguistic factors behind their development have only recently begun to be studied in depth. All polysynthetic languages today are to some degree endangered (they are dying off at an alarming rate), and many have been poorly studied if at all, which makes their investigation before it is too late a prime goal for linguistics.
Christina L. Gagné
Psycholinguistics is the study of how language is acquired, represented, and used by the human mind; it draws on knowledge about both language and cognitive processes. A central topic of debate in psycholinguistics concerns the balance between storage and processing. This debate is especially evident in research concerning morphology, which is the study of word structure, and several theoretical issues have arisen concerning the question of how (or whether) morphology is represented and what function morphology serves in the processing of complex words. Five theoretical approaches have emerged that differ substantially in the emphasis placed on the role of morphemic representations during the processing of morphologically complex words. The first approach minimizes processing by positing that all words, even morphologically complex ones, are stored and recognized as whole units, without the use of morphemic representations. The second approach posits that words are represented and processed in terms of morphemic units. The third approach is a mixture of the first two approaches and posits that a whole-access route and decomposition route operate in parallel. A fourth approach posits that both whole word representations and morphemic representations are used, and that these two types of information interact. A fifth approach proposes that morphology is not explicitly represented, but rather, emerges from the co-activation of orthographic/phonological representations and semantic representations. These competing approaches have been evaluated using a wide variety of empirical methods examining, for example, morphological priming, the role of constituent and word frequency, and the role of morphemic position. For the most part, the evidence points to the involvement of morphological representations during the processing of complex words. However, the specific way in which these representations are used is not yet fully known.
Ljuba N. Veselinova
Erich R. Round
The non–Pama-Nyugan, Tangkic languages were spoken until recently in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria, Australia. The most extensively documented are Lardil, Kayardild, and Yukulta. Their phonology is notable for its opaque, word-final deletion rules and extensive word-internal sandhi processes. The morphology contains complex relationships between sets of forms and sets of functions, due in part to major historical refunctionalizations, which have converted case markers into markers of tense and complementization and verbal suffixes into case markers. Syntactic constituency is often marked by inflectional concord, resulting frequently in affix stacking. Yukulta in particular possesses a rich set of inflection-marking possibilities for core arguments, including detransitivized configurations and an inverse system. These relate in interesting ways historically to argument marking in Lardil and Kayardild. Subordinate clauses are marked for tense across most constituents other than the subject, and such tense marking is also found in main clauses in Lardil and Kayardild, which have lost the agreement and tense-marking second-position clitic of Yukulta. Under specific conditions of co-reference between matrix and subordinate arguments, and under certain discourse conditions, clauses may be marked, on all or almost all words, by complementization markers, in addition to inflection for case and tense.