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An empirical test of the Agglutination Hypothesis

Haspelmath, Martin

In this paper, I approach the agglutination-fusion distinction from an empirical point of view. Although the well-known morphological typology of languages (isolating, agglutinating, flexive/fusional, incorporating) has often been criticized as empty, the old idea that there are (predominantly) agglutinating and (predominantly) fusional languages in fact makes two implicit predictions. First, agglutination/fusion is characteristic of whole languages rather than individual constructions; second, the various components of agglutination/fusion correlate with each other. The (unstated, but widely assumed) Agglutination Hypothesis can thus be formulated as follows:

(i)  First prediction: If a language is agglutinating/fusional in one area of its morphology (e.g. in nouns, or in the future tense), it shows the same type elsewhere.

(ii)  Second prediction: If a language is agglutinating/fusional with respect to one of the three agglutination parameters (a-c) (and perhaps others), it shows the same type with respect to the other two parameters: (a) separation/cumulation, (b) morpheme invariance/morpheme variability, (c) affix uniformity/affix suppletion.

I report on a study of the nominal and verbal inflectional morphology of a reasonably balanced world-wide sample of 30 languages, applying a variety of measures for the agglutination parameters and determining whether they are cross-linguistically significant. The results do not confirm the validity of the Agglutination Hypothesis, and the current evidence suggests that “agglutination” is just one way of trying to capture the strangeness of non-Indo-European languages, which all look alike to Eurocentric eyes.

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