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Native Language | Linguistics: Grammar Terms & Definitions

Introduction & explanation

As you attempt to learn another language, and particularly if you're using a more traditional grammar text or a linguistics-derived approach, you'll encounter many technical terms. Whether you consider yourself a linguist, grammarian or just a beginning learner, I've placed this resource here to help you find some answers.

Note that I pulled this glossary from my book, Native Grammar: How Languages Work. The numbers following each definition refer to the book's chapters, which explain and give examples of each term.


This glossary is excerpted from my book, and is also tied to nativlang.com's free linguistics courses for language learners.

It's all about words. If you know words, you have a quick key to unlocking larger concepts. You also sound like you know what you're talking about!

These are the key terms used throughout this course. Keep this list handy whenever you need a quick refresher, but don't forget to reread any sections or chapters still hazy in your memory. When you see a bold italic word within a definition, refer to the separate entry for that term.

Adjective: A type of modifier that describes a noun or pronoun. Some languages treat them more like nouns and give them properties like cases, classes, etc. In other languages, they are stative verbs (like Japanese aoi 'be blue' or Nahajo hózhó. 'be happy'). Chapter 5.

Adposition: A type of particle that grammatically relates to an adjacent word or phrase. More specific names for types of adpositions are given based on where they are placed: preposition, postposition, etc. Chapter 6.

Adverbs: A type of modifier that modifies verbs, adjectives, other adverbs or entire phrases. The sickly in walk sickly is an adverb. Chapter 7.

Affix: A morpheme whose job is to attach itself to another morpheme. A very common type of bound morpheme. The af– of affix and the –'s of mom's dog's food are both affixes. More specific names for types of affixes are given based on where they attach: suffix, prefix, infix, etc. Chapter 1.

Agglutinative (language): A type of synthetic language that prefers lots of affixes tacked on to one base morpheme. Its affixes are often highly specific in meaning. Turkish, Finnish, Luiseño, Japanese and most other synthetic languages in this course are agglutinative. Chapter 1.

Agreement: A type of relationship between words where the property of one word matches the same property of another. In English, run is marked in the singular (he runs) and agrees with its singular subject. Chapter 7.

Allomorph: The different ways one morpheme can show up. If we say that /s/ is the plural morpheme in English, then we would have to admit that we sometimes pronounce it like “z” and sometimes like “s”. The plural morpheme /s/ in their hats doesn't sound like the /s/ in their cars. Chapter 1.

Analytic (language): See isolating. Chapter 1.

Articles: Grammatical words that specify a noun. Includes definite articles and indefinite articles. Many languages don't have them. Chapter 2.

Aspect (grammatical): The flow of the action, such as an action that is complete or an action that hasn't been finished yet. Commonly marked on the verb. In Hawaiian, reduplicating a word shows that it's being done over and over again: hoe 'row' versus hoehoe 'keep on rowing'. Chapter 3.

Auxiliary verb: A lite verb (carrying grammatical weight but not much meaning) that refines another verb's grammatical role in a sentence. Frequently used in periphrastic constructions in English, such as the have in I have gone. Chapter 7.

Bound morpheme: A type of morpheme that cannot exist on its own. It must be attached to another morpheme, like an affix, for example. Inflectional morphemes and derivational morphemes are bound morphemes. Chapter 1.

Branch: One immediate daughter language of a proto-language along with all of its daughters. In other words, one distinct lineage within a larger family. Chapter 1.

Case (grammatical): A way to mark the role a noun or pronoun plays in a sentence, such as the subject or the object. Chapter 1 (nouns), Chapter 4 (pronouns).

Circumfix: Type of affix that is placed around another morpheme. In German, sagen means 'say', but gesagt means 'said' (note that both the initial ge- and final -t must be present, making ge-___-t a circumfix). Chapter 1.

Class (grammatical): Categories that some languages divide nouns or pronouns into. The category a given (pro)noun belongs to is its class. In Sesotho, you can immediately tell the class of a noun from its prefix: bo-hobe 'bread' belongs to one class and se-phiri 'secret' to another. Chapter 2 (nouns), Chapter 4 (pronouns).

Clitic: A morpheme that is pronounced as part of the word it sits next to. It is often enough a particle, but is only arguably a free morpheme or arguably a bound morpheme. Chapter 6.

Comment: See focus. Chapter 7.

Compounding: A type of modification where one root is attached to another. The sick in sickday is a compounded modifier. In Chinese, the chõng 'flushing' in chõnglàng (flushing wave) 'surfing' is a modifier. Chapter 7.

Conjugation: In synthetic languages that mark their verbs, a list of the various forms a verb can have. Also used when talking about putting the verb into its appropriate form. Chapter 3.

Conjunction: A type of particle that connects thoughts or sentences. In English, and is a conjunction. Chapter 6.

Daughter (language): A language that descends from a parent language and belongs to that parent's family. Chapter 1.

Declension: In synthetic languages that mark their nouns or pronouns, a list of the various forms a noun or pronoun can have. Also used when talking about putting the noun or pronoun into its appropriate form. Chapter 2 (nouns), Chapter 4 (pronouns).

Declining: See declension. Chapter 2 (nouns), Chapter 4 (pronouns).

Definite article: An article equivalent to the word the in English. Chapter 2.

Derivational morphemes: Can be used in combination with another morpheme to derive new words. The in– of indestructible is a derivational morpheme, deriving a separate word for the concept of “not-destructible”. Chapter 1.

Ending: A common word for a suffix. Chapter 1.

Family (language): A bunch of individual languages that scholars found to be related to one another. They all descend from a common parent language. Chapter 1.

Focus: A relationship between words in which one word or group of words gives information about an associated topic. The topic normally occurs within the same sentence. Chapter 7.

Formality: A way of expressing social differences between speakers, often used to show respect or a lack thereof. Sometimes marked on or with pronouns, nouns and verbs. In early Modern English, the second person pronoun thou was casual and you was formal. Chapter 7.

Formally: In this course, used interchangeably with grammatically.

Free morpheme: A type of morpheme that can exist on its own, without being attached to another morpheme. The English word mom and the Luiseño hunwut are free morphemes. Inflectional morphemes and derivational morphemes aren't free, they're bound morphemes. Chapter 1.

Fusional (language): Type of synthetic language that packs a lot of grammatical information into its affixes. Also called inflecting. Greek, Icelandic and most other Indo-European languages are fusional. English is historically fusional, but is now largely isolating. Chapter 1.

Gender: Categories that some languages divide nouns or pronouns into. Similar to class. In Italian, you can often tell the gender of a noun from its suffix: figli-o 'son' belongs to the masculine gender and figli-a 'daughter' to the feminine gender. Verbs and adjectives may agree with the gender of an associated noun, as in Arabic. Chapter 2 (nouns), Chapter 4 (pronouns), Chapter 7 (agreement).

Government: A relationship between words or morphemes where one word or morpheme makes another comply with a specific property. In Latin, the verb occidit 'killed' governs the object form of the noun or pronoun, so it forces its object take a different case (me occidit 'killed me' and not ego occidit 'killed I'). Chapter 7.

Grammar: In this course, morphemes and relations between morphemes, words and relations between words, and the set of rules that defines these relations.

Grammatical(ly): Dealing with the ability of language to distinguish rules by marking them with affixes, particles, word order, by leaving them unmarked, or in some other way (such as changing the “i” in drink to the “u” in drunk in the past tense).

Helping Verb: See auxiliary verb. Chapter 7.

Indefinite article: An article equivalent to the words a and an in English. Chapter 2.

Infix: Type of affix that attaches in the middle of another morpheme. One example in English is the present tense –n– in stand or convince that disappears in stood or convict. Chapter 1.

Inflectional morpheme: A type of morpheme that attaches to another word and has a grammatical meaning. The grammatical meaning of “apostrophe s” in cat's is “possession”. Chapter 1.

Intransitive verb: A verb that cannot take an object. In Classical Tibetan, intransitive verbs are marked with the suffix –s in the past tense (khros 'got angry'). Chapter 3.

Isolating (language): A type of language that is not synthetic. A strictly isolating language conceives of all of its morphemes as true and independent words, or free morphemes. Also called analytic. Chinese, Hawaiian and others in this course are isolating/analytic. English is largely isolating. Chapter 1.

Language: Hard to define, but in this course it means the human ability to speak and form new and unique thoughts, and the set of rules in your brain that can tie those thoughts together. Introduction.

Language family: See family. Chapter 1.

Languages: Hard to define, but in this course it means a language or dialect with its own name, its own tradition and its own grammar. We view each language as one possible take on language – it's one concrete, real-world example of the countless ways our brain could form words and sentences. Introduction.

Marked: A feature grammatically represented in a language, such as when a morpheme takes an affix or sits near a particle with some grammatical meaning. The word mom's is marked as “possessive” in English. Common in synthetic languages. Chapter 1.

Marking: See marked. Chapter 1.

Modification: A relationship in which the meaning of a word or phrase is altered by a modifier. Includes the use of adjectives, adverbs or compounding. In English, sick dog, walk sickly and sickday all have modifiers. Chapter 7.

Modifier: See modification. Chapter 7.

Mood (grammatical): A way of framing or nuancing an action. Commonly marked on verbs. In Spanish, cantas 'you sing' is in the basic “indicative mood” and ¡canta! 'sing!' is in the command or “imperative mood”. Chapter 3.

Morpheme: The smallest meaningful unit you can break apart. Some are no bigger than one sound: the English –s is not just a letter, but also a morpheme that makes a word plural (the boys). Chapter 1.

Noun: A name or label for people and things. Chapter 2.

Number (grammatical): A property that counts how many people or things are involved. Many languages distinguish between singular (one: dog) and plural (more than one: dogs). Others count more numbers, such as Lihir with its pronouns. Nouns, verbs and pronouns are often marked for number. Chapter 2 (nouns), Chapter 3 (verbs), Chapter 4 (pronouns).

Object: The noun or pronoun impacted by an action. Whoever or whatever the verb is done to. In English, donuts is the object of this morning, I ate donuts. Chapter 1.

Parent (language): A language that stands as the ancestor of its daughter languages and heads a branch or a family. Chapter 1.

Particle: A free morpheme, often fairly short, that has some grammatical function but not much other meaning. The English conjunction and is a particle, as is nearly every grammatical morpheme in Hawaiian: objects are marked with the particle i, subjects with 'o, etc. Chapter 6.

Periphrasis: Beating around the grammatical bush by using a phrase to convey the same information that is marked in another language. In Romanian, orașului has the root oraș 'town' and carries an affix –ului that marks direction towards. Having no such marker, English uses the periphrastic phrase to the town. Common in isolating languages. Chapter 1.

Parts of speech: All the broad grammatical categories that we can divide words into. See nouns, verbs, pronouns and so on.

Periphrastic construction: See periphrasis. Chapter 1.

Person (grammatical): A property that shows the distance between the speaker and the person spoken about. Commonly marked on pronouns, nouns and verbs. In English, I am the first person, you are the second, and (s)he is the third. Chapter 3.

Politeness: See formality. Chapter 7.

Possession: A relationship in which one noun or pronoun controls, is related to or has ownership of another. In English, the affix –'s shows possession, and is attached to the possessor: Giuseppe's elephant. Chapter 7.

Postposition: A type of adposition that comes after the word or phrase it relates to. The no 'of' in Japanese watashi no desu 'it's of me' ('it's mine') is a postposition. Chapter 6.

Predicate: The verb and everything that falls on the impact side of the action. Squeaks, squeaks loudly, and squeaks with a horrifying, spine-shivering screech all act as predicates when I add a subject: that mouse ____. Chapter 7.

Prefix: A type of affix that attaches to the beginning of another morpheme.

Preposition: A type of adposition that comes before the word or phrase it relates to. The to in to the house is a preposition. Chapter 6.

Pronoun: A noun-like word that stands in for a noun. In languages that have them, and not all do, pronouns are a valuable, short-hand resource for referring to people or things. In English, the pronoun he can represent the man, that boy, the driver, etc. Chapter 4.

Proto-language: The top-level parent of a language family. They are sometimes attested (that is, recorded somewhere), but more often they are at least partly reconstructed. Chapter 1.

Reconstructed: See reconstruction. Chapter 1.

Reconstruction: Comparing examples from a language family's daughter languages among its various branches in order to rebuild the parent language. Chapter 1.

Relationship: Used in this course to talk about the connections between words and morphemes, and the properties that define those connections. Chapter 7.

Root: In synthetic languages, the base morpheme carrying the word's central meaning. The root of the word unbelievable is the morpheme believ(e). In Greek, the morpheme log– is the root of epílogos 'epilogue'. Chapter 1.

State: See stative verb. Chapter 5.

Stative verb: a type of intransitive verb that indicates a state (like Japanese aoi 'be blue' or Nahajo hózhó, 'be happy'). Chapter 5.

Stem: In synthetic languages, a series of morphemes ready to be attached to an inflectional morpheme such as an affix. In Greek, the two morphemes epi-log– form the stem of epílogos 'epilogue'. Chapter 1.

Subject (word order): The noun or pronoun performing the action. Whoever or whatever is driving or experiencing the verb. In English, he is the subject of he ran a mile. Chapter 1.

Subject (part of sentence): The noun or pronoun performing the action, along with all of the morphemes and words that immediately revolve around that noun or pronoun. The big hat is the subject of the sentence the big hat fits perfectly! Chapter 7.

Suffix: A type of affix that attaches to the end of another morpheme. Chapter 1.

Synthetic (language): Type of language that likes to build words by putting morphemes together, often attaching bound morphemes to express grammar. Includes all fusional and all agglutinative languages. Japanese, Greek, Turkish, Icelandic, Swahili, Eskimo and others throughout this course are synthetic. Chapter 1.

Tense: The property of a verb that shows when the action takes place. In English, the present tense is usually unmarked (I ruin), the past tense marked (I ruined), and the future is a periphrastic construction (I will run). Chapter 3.

Topic: See topicalization. Chapter 7.

Topicalization: A type of relationship that emphasizes or shines the spotlight on a specific part of your sentence (the topic). In English, we topicalize with the periphrastic construction as for (as for me, I'd rather not). In Tagalog, the focus is signaled in the verb and the topic marked with the prepositional particle ang. Chapter 7.

Transitive verb: A verb that can take an object. In Classical Tibetan, transitive verbs are marked by the circumfix b-___-s in the past tense (bsags 'gather'). Chapter 3.

Transitivity: Property of the verb that determines if it can take an object. This property shows whether or not the action can be done to someone or something. Chapter 3.

Unmarked: Taking no affix or particle to show grammatical meaning. The opposite of marked. The English word mom is totally unmarked. Chapter 1.

Verb: An action or state. It's what's happening or what's going on in a sentence. Chapter 1, Chapter 3.

Word classes: All the broad categories we can divide words into based on their grammatical use. Also called parts of speech.

Word order: The arrangement of words in a phrase or sentence, sometimes to show grammatical meaning. Chapter 1.

Word order (basic): The main way a language arranges its subject, verb and object (or S, V and O). Chapter 1.

Learn about these concepts and more, including explanations, examples and exercises, in Native Grammar: How Languages Work . This material copyright 2010.