Concepts will be grouped from broadest terminology down to smaller minutiae, and then alphabetically within each sub-grouping. With all of these terms and categories, remember that these are only basic descriptions, not rules that must be written in stone; some languages use many different systems, to greater or lesser degrees, together and in different ways.
Allophone - Sometimes changing the phoneme in a word doesn't change the meaning, in the word 'Tuesday', the option is available to pronounce it with two separate phonemes which still have the same meaning; it can be pronounced as 'twosday' or 'Chyewsday' with the spelling of both using the letter 'T'. Therefore, the two different sounds are considered 'Allophones' of the phoneme 'T'.
Clause - When observing how languages express meaning, a 'clause' is the largest type of entity that can be used to express an idea or concept. What generally distinguishes clauses from phrases is that clauses have a subject and a 'finite verb', and phrases do not.*
*There is an exception to the rule about clauses and finite verbs, where clauses can use concepts such as 'non-finite' verbs, called 'Gerunds', and still be allowed within a language's rule system.
Inflection - There are two meanings here, either, the change in pitch or volume of someone's voice, or, the change in the shape of a word to indicate concepts such as tense, gender, mood, plurality, etc. Both definitions are used in linguistics, across different languages. The first definition would be relevant (mostly) to languages such as English, where we can make a statement into a question by changing the pitch and tone, but also tonal languages such as Mandarin. The second meaning would be applied, for example, to Romance and Slavic languages, but is definitely not limited to those language groupings.
Some languages inflect their stems with long chains of affixes, so that one word contains the meaning of an entire sentence in other language systems, these are called 'Polysynthetic Languages' because they have higher amounts of morphemes per word than other systems. Languages that use less sounds (morphemes) per word than polysynthetic languages, are called 'Isolating Languages'. If a morpheme, in an isolating language, has only one meaning (case-ending) per affix, the language is considered 'agglutinative', whereas languages where an affix can possess multiple meanings at once, are considered 'fusional'. Languages can be both poly-synthetic and agglutinative, depending on how they decide to structure themselves.
Morpheme - For this term, I like the Wikipedia definition because it is succinct, "A morpheme is the smallest meaningful unit in a language". There is an important distinction that needs to be made here, that words and morphemes are not necessarily the same thing, because different languages use different governing rules to dictate how meaning is expressed. Studying how languages can and do use different methods to create meaning is called the study of Morphology. Some languages allow single characters, or what we in English perceive as letters, to have meaning without requirement to be grouped with other characters; consider languages such as Mandarin, where a single character can have the meaning of a noun, verb, or other possible meaning, because it uses different methods to express meaning. English requires a full word in order to comply with our own grammatical rules, before it can be used in a sentence. In situations where a single letter is used to express something, such as expressing definiteness (a cat, a dog, etc.), the single letter requires a noun after it and therefore is not allowed to sit in the sentence by itself.
Morphology - As a general concept, morphology is the study of the method of how things take shape and what final form they take; in Linguistics, this process is translated as the study of words, the rules that govern their creation, and how different words act/react together in any given language. Examples of grammatical rules that are part of the study of Morphology are the use use of prefixes/suffixes, intonation (tone), stress of words and phrases, etc.
Phoneme - What exactly a phoneme is depends on the language, however, a phoneme is generally the sounds used in a language or dialect, where changing one sound in a word can change it's meaning. In so far as I understand, the speech sounds themselves are called 'phones', but become 'phonemes' when put together and applied to the rules of a specific language, to distinguish between words.
- Example: In English, if I say the words 'house/mouse', the letters '-H-' and '-M-' are phonemes that change the meaning of the word they modify. This means that, in languages such as English, the same letter wont always have the same sound whenever it is used. Traditionally, English has 5 vowels and 21 consonants, but most English dialects have, on average, 42-44 phonemes in their 'speech inventory', which is the entire library of sounds that can be found in a specific language or dialect.
- Example: In the word 'refrigerator' the '-o-' is generally pronounced with a different sound than in the word 'omega', because our language has developed in that direction; the phoneme '-o-' in 'refrigerator' is called a 'Schwa'. Schwas are found in many different languages, and are officially categorized as the 'mid central vowel' sound in the IPA's official charts, where the character is represented by an 'ə'. This means that, when looking at the IPA chart, you would pronounce it as 'refrigeratər'.
For reference, the 'O' in 'omega' is categorized as the 'close-mid back rounded vowel' sound on the IPA's charts, and is written in the IPA as 'O'.
Phrase - A feature available to languages, the smallest possible structure that can be used to express a complete thought or idea. Phrases are made up of words/morphemes that themselves require following the language's grammatical, morphological and morpho-syntactic rules.
Syntax - Once you understand how a language creates morphemes, the next step to understanding the flow of a language is understanding how sentences are created, this is called 'Syntax'. Syntax examines subjects like 'word-order', such as how in English phrases are organized in the sequence 'Subject, then 'Verb' then 'Object' or 'SVO' for short.
Types of Languages:
Now that you have an idea of some of the basic terminology, we will move on to less-generalized concepts, and begin discussing some of the different ideas that affect how languages use the above definitions. This grouping will feature definitions that roughly represent the final stages of language-understanding, before one actually starts creating sentences in one's target-language.
Synthetic Languages: Languages that determine meaning, based on the 'shape' of a word; in essence, I like to think of synthetic languages, using the analogy of 'chemistry'; You take base chemicals, mix and add other chemicals, to create new (synthetic) compounds, it is the same idea in 'Synthetic Languages'. In a synthetic language, the pieces that are added to base words, to create new meanings, are called 'Affix(es)'.
Synthetic languages use a system of 'cases' to determine what affix should be used, and when. Cases vary from language to language, but
- Agglutination: Agglutinative languages give meaning by attaching, 'gluing' several morphemes together*. Finnish and Hungarian are excellent examples of Agglutinative Languages. In terms of how words are built, agglutinative languages sometimes end up with incredibly long words, with multiple meaning-stems being added to the front, middle, or end of the base word that they are modifying, depending on the language being discussed. Agglutinative languages should not be confused with 'compounding' languages, which are languages, such as German and English, that take complete words and combine them with other complete words to make new ones. The easiest way to think of the difference is that compounded words can be separated and used by themselves, whereas the affixes of Agglutinative and Fusional Languages cannot be used in sentences by themselves.
- Fusion: This method of word-building will be familiar to most English speakers as the system used in most Romance and Slavic languages, where meaning comes from the changing or adding of letters/characters to the stem, called 'declension'. To express meaning, fusional languages take base stems (words) and modify them, permanently, with inflected case-endings; the base stem is still able to be combined with other case endings, in different situations, but if you remove the 'fused' affix, the word loses its new meaning.
Analytic Languages - This category is usually associated with languages such as English, Mandarin, Bulgarian and many others, and describes systems that focus on the sequence and combination of separate words, as opposed to gluing or fusing affixes to base stems. If synthetic languages are like chemistry, then analytic languages are pure mathematics. Instead of affixes, we use 'particles', think of the questions 'who', 'what', 'when', 'where' and 'why', together with rules that tell us what sequence we need to express words in a sentence, to speak correctly, this is called 'Word-order'.
- Example: This is why 'Yoda' has such memorable dialogue in the Star Wars movies, because his speech is given in a sequence that is reasonably distinct from how most English speakers structure their phrases/clauses. As always, in linguistics, there are plenty of languages where Yoda's word-order would be perfectly reasonable. Some languages that do not normally use 'word-order', can use it for specific situations, such as poetry, while others can be described as having no word-order, but still have a speaking population that, generally, places words in specific patterns, despite not possessing grammatical rules telling them to do so.
Morphosyntactic Alignment: I've alluded many times to 'grammar rules' and how languages can use them to determine correct word-usage in a phrase or clause, and I'd like to explore the concept in more detail here because this can sometimes be an intimidating for new learners. Morpho-syntactic alignment deals with concepts that are required in a sentence, such as:
- Subject: What your sentence is about, it's topic.
- Agent: Whatever your sentence is about, how is the end-result achieved? With a tool? A person? The answer to these questions is the 'agent' of a sentence.
- Object: In a sentence, generally, the object would be the recipient of an action, something is done to the object. I say generally because there are circumstances across many languages where phrases/clauses do not need an object, or the object of the a sentence is the same as the agent agent; this is is called 'Transitivity'
- These terms are all considered 'arguments' of a phrase or clause, because they are considered the minimum required information to complete a clause*. When a language is inflected properly,
* As always, different languages will use these concepts in different ways, and with different words for the same terms. As long as you keep your mind open to the different possibilities of how we can give meaning, these terms do not need to be studied extensively and the general idea will be sufficient in most cases.
Across all languages, the two most common types of morpho-syntactic alignment are:
- Nominative-Accusative Alignment: This happens to be the alignment-system used by the English Language, amongst many others, and it's defining characteristic is that this system considers the 'subject' of an intransitive verb as being no different than the 'agent' of a transitive verb. With languages that use this system, the object, in sentences that have any, is always expressed with different 'marker(s)'; this is done to prevent confusion such as a sentence having two objects and no subject (when it is supposed to contain a subject).
Note: In many inflected languages, the subject and/or agent will be given in the 'nominative' case-ending and the object will be given the 'accusative' case-ending. In English, the function of agent is covered by the 'subject' in clauses.
- Ergative-Absolutive Alignment: Ergative-Absolutive languages are much less common than nominative-accusative languages, with notable examples being Basque, Georgian, Tibetan, and Hindi. In contrast to nominative-absolutive systems, ergative-absolutive alignment uses the subject of an intransitive verb, and the object of a transitive verb, in the same manner. This means that the shape of the word representing the subject/agent, in both verb situations, will be the same, whereas in nominative-accusative systems, they are identified differently.
- Example: From the Wikipedia page, "the single argument of an intransitive verb ("She" in the sentence "She walks.") behaves grammatically like the agent of a transitive verb ("She" in the sentence "She finds it.") but differently from the object of a transitive verb ("her" in the sentence "He likes her.")". In this example 'She' in both cases would be given the Ergative case-ending and 'her' would be given the absolutive case-ending.
- Transitivity: This word is used to define verbs by their behaviour. Direct object is a term used in a sentence to connect the action of the verb to a specific thing in the sentence. A transitive verb must include something other than the subject of the sentence, and this is where the direct object is used.
- Transitive Verb (with an object) - "I fed my dog" with 'my dog' being the recipient of the verb.
- Intransitive verb (without an object) - "I ate". Here we have "I" as the subject, and a verb that doesn't connect to anything else beyond that, which also happens to be the agent in the sentence (an example of how different languages will use these concepts and methods in different ways).