6 Distributive and integrative languages

Previously here, I have introduced the idea of how the grammar of a language is a co-operation between its synthetic grammar and its analytic grammar. As explained earlier, the synthetic grammar is where the internal functional structure of the sentence is managed, in terms of subject, verb, object etc. The analytic grammar is where the language works with nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions etc. These terms of synthetic and analytic grammar are not, at this time of writing, accepted. If you, at this time of writing, were to do an Internet search on both terms, you will likely find nothing much current matching coming up in your search. What you will find coming up in that search, almost certainly, are the terms analytic language and synthetic language.

Rethinking the terminology

For the reasons outlined here earlier in ‘I have a problem’, I feel that the contrast between analytic and synthetic languages is not useful or explanatory. Though, I feel that the contrast between synthetic and analytic grammar is hugely helpful and explanatory. And, in fact, I notice that writers talking about the so-called analytic and synthetic language contrast can often sound, to me at least, somewhat confused and muddled for the very reason that they are not distinguishing between analytic- and synthetic-grammar levels when analysing languages for how relatively ‘analytic’ or ‘synthetic’ they are as languages in themselves. In fact, it seems counter-intuitive to me to determine that a language is predominantly analytic or synthetic when the processes of reasoning in the analytic and synthetic spheres are crucial to all languages. If languages focused only on the analytic or synthetic, as the analytic-synthetic language contrast seems to imply they do, they would not function as effective media of communication – they wouldn’t be able to do so.

Integrative and distributive languages

Okay, so, in my view, we need one set of terms for the levels of grammar: the analytic and the synthetic. And, we need another set of terms for the types of language. Instead of ‘analytic’ and ‘synthetic’, I am proposing: distributive and integrative, to cover the same range of concerns as that conventionally covered in the literature on language types, but in a more elucidatory way. Proud boasts! So, here goes.

The core of the difference between language types is the quantity of grammatical information (both on the synthetic level and on the analytic level) expressed by the form of each individual word. The more information that is expressed by the form of the word, the more integrative the language; the less information, the more distributive the language is, in that we attribute information to the word by the context of words or by combining developed meanings across words.

Hmmm, that’s a mouthful of ideas, so let’s unpack it by looking at examples across two languages: Czech and English.

Exemplifying a strongly integrative language

I would say that Czech is a strongly integrative language, much more so than English could ever be described as such. Look at this sentence in Czech with its English translation:

Otevřel láhev vývrtkou. = [He] opened (Otevřel) the bottle (láhev) with a corkscrew (vývrtkou).

Let’s focus particularly on vývrtkou. The base form of this noun is vývrtka the –ou inflection indicates that the noun is being used in the instrumental case to cover the same meaning as with a corkscrew. Here, Czech is covering a lot of information in the one word through the use of inflection whereas English is expresses the same information with a collection of words including the preposition with, deploying more words to deliver the same information. Where English is using the three words to convey the synthetic functional structure that is conventionally called an adverbial, Czech is delivering the whole adverbial through using an instrumental case that contrasts carefully and explicitly with the nominative (= subject) case of vývrtka.

Let’s look in a bit more detail at cases in Latin and Czech in this table for the Latin and Czech words for ‘year’, where cases are the inflections used to express synthetic grammatical categories (such as subject, object etc):

case Latin Czech
nominative (indicates sentence subject): annus rok
vocative (to express you): annus roku
accusative (indicates sentence object): annum rok
genitive (indicates of) anni roku
dative (indicates to) anno roku
instrumental (indicates by) anno rokem
local (indicates about) roku

Now let’s look at some dog and chicken sentences in Czech with their English translation:

1) Pes sledoval kuře. = The dog (Pes) watched (sledoval) the chicken (kuře).

2) Kuře sledovalo psa. = The chicken (Kuře) watched (sledovalo) the dog (psa).

Sentences 1 and 2 are in the order of subject, verb, object, but they can also be said in the order of object, verb, subject:

3) Kuře sledoval pes . = The dog (Pes) watched (sledoval) the chicken (kuře).

4) Psa sledovalo kuře. = The chicken (Kuře) watched (sledovalo) the dog (psa) .

Because of the inflection systems, there is no need for the words to be in a single set order according to their synthetic grammar category.

In sentences 1-4, each word contains a lot of grammatical information. By its form, pes (‘dog’), in sentence 1, holds the information that it is the subject of the sentence, while psa (‘dog’) holds the information by its form that it is an object. This is synthetic grammar information. But also, analytic grammar information is formed from within the form of the word. Both pes and psa hold the information that they are nouns and they are masculine. Sledoval, by its form, holds the information that it is a verb being used after a masculine noun, as opposed to sledovalo, in sentence 2, which is the form used after the a neuter noun such as kuře (chicken). Furthermore, sledoval holds the information that it is a 3rd person singular verb (the form used after he) and that it is past (‘watched’) and not present as in sleduje (‘watches’).

We can see from these examples of the working of the inflection system within the grammar that Czech is a highly integrative language.

Exemplifying a strongly distributive language

Chinese is a strongly distributive language where a very small amount of information is held within the word and where there is no inflection system. For example:

Gǒu kàn jī = The dog (Gǒu) watches (kàn) the chicken (jī).

Jī kàn gǒu = The chicken (Jī ) watches (kàn) the dog (gǒu).

Gǒu kàn zhe jī = The dog (Gǒu) watched (kàn zhe) the chicken (jī).

Jī kàn zhe gǒu = The chicken (Jī) watched (kàn zhe) the dog (gǒu).

Notice that there is no inflection system for the verb and the past of the verb kàn is indicated by adding another word zhe to indicate in conjunction that the past of watch is intended (as in watched). Dog and chicken have no intrinsic formal system to indicate that they are the subject and the object respectively; they only have their position before or after the verb to show that they are the subject or the object. Chinese usually uses a subject-verb-object word order to show the synthetic grammar structure of the sentence.

Where is English in this?

English is like Chinese in that it uses word position, in a subject (S) verb (V) object (O) order to show the synthetic grammar structure of the sentence:

The dog(S) watched(V) the chicken(O).

So, in its synthetic grammar, English is clearly distributive – almost entirely, except with pronouns where, for example, the pronouns I/he/she/we/they are the subject forms and me/him/her/us/them are the object forms.

However, in its analytic grammar, English is more mixed. It does use inflections, such as the plural –s and the –ed ending for the past. But, for example,as there is no future tense in English, it expresses the future with the present forms sometimes relying solely on the context of words to show the future meaning that is intended as in My plane leaves at six or by using a collection of words to indicate futurity as in I’ll leave at six OR I’ll be leaving at six OR I’m going to be leaving at six etc.

A review

We can review these perceptions of the nature of English, Chinese and Czech like this:

grammar level

language type




synthetic level

English, Chinese


analytic level




We can then make a broad judgement on where a language looks to appear on a distributive-to-integrative cline, like this:

distributive <———————————————————————————–> integrative

Chinese                    English                                                                                       Czech


My thanks to Anna Vávrová for her help with the Czech sentences used above and for discussing with me the details of, and the possibilities for rethinking, the definitions and the nomenclature used in language typology research.

David Lott

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