Morphological Classification of Languages

Morphological Classification of Languages


a classification system based on similarities and differences in linguistic structure, as opposed to the genealogical classification.

While linguistic typology undertook to create a typological classification of languages, all typological classifications were almost exclusively morphological, since morphology was for a long time the most developed field of linguistics. However, morphological classification was originally not regarded as relating exclusively to the morphological level of language, but was so called because those who created the classification were concerned largely with the formal aspect of language.

The basic concepts in the morphological classification of languages are the morpheme and the word. The basic criteria for classification are the nature of the morphemes (lexical and grammatical) combined in a word; the method of their combination, such as pre- or postpositioning of grammatical morphemes (which has a direct relation to syntax) and agglutination, or fusion (related to the field of morphophonemics); and the syntactically related connection between the morpheme and the word (such as isolation, when morpheme = word, or the analytic or synthetic character of word formation and inflection).

Morphological classification seeks to describe not specific languages (in which several morphological types are always present), but basic structural phenomena and trends in languages. Morphological classification was founded and developed in the course of the 19th century by such German linguists as A. Schlegel, H. Steinthal, W. Humboldt, and A. Schleicher.

The American linguist E. Sapir attempted to systematize the criteria of morphological classification; he introduced the concept of the degree of quality, based on the fact that one or another type may be present to a greater or lesser degree in a given language (for example, a language may be almost amorphous or agglutinative to the highest degree). Sapir invented a flexible classification scale and compared the data of morphological classification with actual data provided by specific languages.

Since the early 20th century, that is, since the marked increase in linguistic knowledge about the structure of languages of different types and families, the creation of a general typological classification has ceased to be either the main or the most pressing task of typology. It has become obvious that a classification free from the shortcomings of the traditional morphological classification of languages—imprecision of basic concepts, lack of demarcation between classificational criteria of different types, vagueness of concepts about essential and adequate criteria, and lack of relatedness to real language structures—and also containing phonological, syntactic, and semantic characteristics of the structure of language, cannot be created at the present time.

However, there are certain trends in typology that make fruitful use of the data of morphological classification. For example, the American linguist J. Greenberg introduced a number of new criteria, as well as the principle of quantitative evaluation of language characteristics, into Sapir’s classification. The Czech linguist V. Skalidka and other representatives of descriptive typology are studying the infrastructural laws by which certain typological features are combined in a given language; that is, they are working out a system for characterizing language types. The Soviet linguist B. A. Uspenskii classifies linguistic features and groups of features according to systematized criteria. He then classifies languages according to the presence or absence of various groups of features; the languages are compared with a certain model language structured in accord with the general principles of morphological classification interpreted according to this model language.


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Kuznetsov, P. S. Morfologicheskaia klassifikatsiia iazykov. Moscow, 1954.
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Uspenskii, B. A. Strukturnaia tipologiia iazykov. Moscow, 1965.
Skali£ka, V. “K voprosu o tipologii.” Voprosy iazykoznaniia, 1966, no. 4.
Novoe v lingvistike, issue 5. Moscow, 1970.
“Lingvisticheskaia tipologiia.” In Obshchee iazykoznanie, vol. 2. Moscow, 1972.
Home, K. M. Language Typology: 19th and 20th Century Views. Washington, 1966.


References in periodicals archive ?
We remind morphological classification of languages and discuss the models that are necessary for development of the system of automatic morphological analysis.
Other morphological classification of languages is applied to synthetic languages and it is based on the predominant morphological technique: agglutination vs.