Oligosynthetic languages are languages with many suffixes and few roots, often leading to a vocabulary of only a few hundred words. While common in constructed languages, they are not found in nature.

  • Is it possible for a cultures language to be oligosynthetic? If this is not feasible, how close can I get to an oligosynthetic language?
  • What traits would this hypothetical culture require to develop an oligosynthetic language?
  • How early could a cultures language become oligosynthetic?
  • $\begingroup$ When you ask "is it possible", do you mean "is it possible for this to naturally arise"? i.e. you're excluding conlangs? $\endgroup$ – Monica Cellio Feb 15 '17 at 2:55
  • $\begingroup$ @MonicaCellio exactly $\endgroup$ – TrEs-2b Feb 15 '17 at 15:35

Abstracting above language, humans think in terms of "actors / actions" (I ate) or "adjectives" (beautiful flower).

Towards expressing thoughts in language, look at the pro-drop languages. Via inference by context, pro-drop languages use as few words as possible to express thoughts. The macro idea of using as few words as possible is inline with the idea of oligosynthetic languages.

Japanese is a pro-drop language. My feeling is that Japan's cultural / social homogeny enables an efficient language that is based on inference by context. Such homogeny would also help develop a true oligosynthetic language.

My observation is the Japanese is an evolutionary step up from Western languages. In English, we use pronouns as a pseudo pro-drop mechanism. Upon seeing a pronoun, based on context, we know who the antecedent is. The Japanese extended this idea further and said "to heck with pronouns!". Japanese rarely use pronouns because most frequently they can be inferred without even the pronoun placeholder. Japanese does have pronouns, but their overuse is indicative of non-native Japanese.

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The human speech system can issue a broad range of phonemes, so you can get a lot of different sounds that all have the possibility of becoming roots in their own right. At that point, a language actually using them (so, not oligosynthetic) will give you more "bandwidth", and will naturally be preferred from the beginning of each language family. Other pro-oligosynthetic considerations would arise only much later.

Similarly, we could count in binary positional, but we started using the decimal (in some case, duodecimal or vigesimal) system, and in the beginning it wasn't even positional.

Nowadays (or in the future), one possibility could be some sort of Newspeak imposed from above, for social control or politic/religious reasons. For the language to remain oligosynthetic, though, you would need a very controlled language and media - in short a very controlled society, probably a police or theocratic state.

Another possibility (not for humans) is if you have several signal channels (instead of one as humans do), but each of them has only a few symbols and next to no modulation. It is the case of cuttlefish, that have few "arm" roots and some fifty chromatophoric "suffixes". In such a situation, the longer-ranged or most widely available channels would tend to be used for the roots, if at all possible; the others would supply suffixes. This would allow for a basic meaning to be conveyed even when some channels are unavailable, not unlike what happens with human kinesics.

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  • $\begingroup$ I feel the need to point out that humans have multiple subchannels. In fact, depending on who you believe only 7% of information is relayed through words. At the very least tone of voice and facial expressions/body language are subcarriers. $\endgroup$ – UIDAlexD Feb 15 '17 at 16:55
  • $\begingroup$ You are correct of course, but humans have those channels in addition to spoken language (I'm not sure I subscribe that 7% theory - I wouldn't have expected written word to ever have evolved, if that were the case, or I'd have expected for it to have had at least emojis from the beginning). Spoken language variability is where the multiplicity of root-sounds appears. $\endgroup$ – LSerni Feb 15 '17 at 17:55
  • $\begingroup$ I too think 7% is a bit extreme, but look at it this way. What's my intent when I say "Hi." Are we strangers passing on the street? Am I annoyed with you and trying to get your attention? Am I flirting? Are we business partners? Old friends that haven't seen eachother in years? I could keep going, but in every single one of those instances the word is just a noise, and the actual message is conveyed by my tone and posture. $\endgroup$ – UIDAlexD Feb 15 '17 at 18:27

I don't know if this will help, but what if the people were telepathic? Accompanying the words, the people can send images of whatever they are describing...

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  • $\begingroup$ it's a nice thought but for a different topic. They are specifically asking about a verbal language system so an answer that deviates from that isn't an adequate answer for the question. Also, telepathy would still require words spoken in your mind. The language system of whether it is oligosynthetic or not would still apply but instead of being spoken, it would be sent via the mind and doesn't really do anything to the issue at hand. Images would help simplify, but it doesn't really help in terms of a language :) $\endgroup$ – ggiaquin16 Feb 14 '17 at 23:34

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