In grammar, inflection or inflexion is the way language handles grammatical relations and relational categories such as tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, case. In covert inflection, such categories are not overtly expressed. [For example, gender-neutral languages only have covert gender, i.e. semantically-implied genderness.] Overt inflection typically distinguishes lexical items (such as lexemes) from functional ones (such as affixes, clitics, particles and morphemes in general) and has functional items acting as markers on lexical ones. [For example, in English "cats" versus "cat", the affix "-s" expresses overtly an underlying category and, in speech recognition by actual speakers, the noun "cat" thus marked permits to uncover the grammatical relation in which the noun "cat" is embedded.] Lexical items that do not respond to overt inflection are typically invariant. [Uninflected words do not need to be lemmatized in linguistic descriptions or in language computing. On the other hand, inflectional paradigms (such as "sing", "sang", "sung", "sings", "singing", "singer", "singers", "song", "songs", "songstress", "songstresses" in English) need to be analyzed according to criteria uncovering the underlying lexical stem (here "s*ng-"), the accompaning funtional items ("-i-", "-a-", "-u-", "-s", "-ing", "-er", "-o-", "-stress", "-s") and their functional categories.] Constraining cross-referencing inflection at the sentence level is known as concord or agreement.

Examples in English

In English many nouns are inflected for number with the inflectional plural affix "-s" (as in "dog" → "dog-s"), and most English verbs are inflected for tense with the inflectional past tense affix "-ed" (as in "call" → "call-ed").

English also inflects verbs by affixation to mark the third person singular in the present tense (with "-s"), and the present participle (with "-ing"). English short adjectives are inflected to mark comparative and superlative forms (with "-er" and "-est" respectively).

In addition, English also shows inflection by ablaut (mostly in verbs) and umlaut (mostly in nouns), as well as the odd long-short vowel alternation. For example:

* "Write, wrote, written" (ablaut, and also suffixing in the participle)
* "Sing, sang, sung" (ablaut)
* "Foot, feet" (umlaut)
* "Mouse, mice" (umlaut)
* "Child, children" (vowel alternation, and also suffixing in the plural)

In the past, writers sometimes gave words such as "doctor", "Negro", "dictator", "professor", and "orator" Latin inflections to mark them as feminine, thus forming "doctress", "Negress", "dictatrix", "professress", and "oratress". These inflected forms were never frequently used, although many English users continue to use Latin endings today in somewhat more common constructions such as "actress", "waitress", "executrix", and "dominatrix".

German, which is closely related to English, employs many of these inflectional devices, but the umlaut and ablaut are widespread, while in English they are generally considered as exceptions.

Declension and conjugation

Two traditional grammatical terms refer to inflections of specific word classes:

* Nominals: nouns, and often pronouns, adjectives, and determiners as well; often involving number, case, and/or gender; and
* Verbs, often involving tense, mood, voice, and/or aspect, as well as agreement with one or more arguments in number, gender, and/or person.

Inflecting a nominal word is known as declining it, while inflecting a verb is called conjugating it. An organized list of the inflected forms of a given lexeme is also called its "inflection", "declension", or "conjugation", as the case may be.

Below is an example of the declension of the English pronoun "I", which is inflected for case and number.

The non-finite forms "arrive" (bare infinitive), "arrived" (past participle) and "arriving" (gerund/present participle), although not inflected for person or number, can also be regarded as part of the conjugation of the verb "to arrive". Compound verb forms like "I have arrived", "I had arrived", or "I will arrive" can be included also in the conjugation of this verb for didactical purposes, but are not conjugations of "arrive" in the strictest morphological sense. Rather, they should be analysed as complex verb phrases with the structure

:pronoun + conjugated auxiliary verb + non-finite form of main verb.

A class of words with similar inflection rules is called an inflectional paradigm. Nominal inflectional paradigms are also called "declensions", and verbal inflectional paradigms are called "conjugations". For example, in Old English nouns could be divided into two major declensions, the strong and the weak, inflected as is shown below:

* note: a long tatwiil ( ـــــــــــــــــــــ ) indicates where the verb stem would be placed in order to conjugate it.

Arabic regional dialects (e.g. Moroccan Arabic, Egyptian Arabic, Gulf Arabic), used for everyday communication, tend to have less inflection than the more formal Literary Arabic. For example, in Jordanian Arabic, the second- and third-person feminine plurals ( _ar. أنتنّ "/antunna/" and _ar. هنّ "/hunna/") and their respective unique conjugations are lost and replaced by the masculine ( _ar. أنتم "/antum/" and _ar. هم "/hum/").

Uralic languages (agglutinative)

The Uralic languages (comprising Finno-Ugric and Samoyedic) are agglutinative, following from the agglutination in Proto-Uralic. The largest languages are Hungarian, Finnish and Estonian, all European Union official languages. Uralic inflection is, or is developed from, affixing. Grammatical markers directly added to the word perform the same function as prepositions in English. Almost all words are inflected according to their roles in the sentence: verbs, nouns, pronouns, numerals, adjectives, and some particles.

Hungarian and Finnish, in particular, often simply concatenate suffixes. For example, Finnish "talossanikinko" "in my house, too?" consists of "talo-ssa-ni-kin-ko". However, in the Finnic languages (Finnish, Estonian, Sami), there are processes which affect the root, particularly consonant gradation. The original suffixes may disappear (and appear only by liaison), leaving behind the modification of the root. This process is extensively developed in Estonian and Sami, and makes them also inflected, not only agglutinating languages. The Estonian accusative case, for example, is expressed by a modified root: "maja" →"majja" (historical form *"majam").

Basque (agglutinative)

Basque, a language isolate, is an extremely inflected language, heavily inflecting both nouns and verbs. A Basque noun is inflected in 17 different ways for case, multiplied by 4 ways for its definiteness and number. These first 68 forms are further modified based on other parts of the sentence, which in turn are inflected for the noun again. It is estimated that at two levels of recursion, a Basque noun may have 458,683 inflected forms. [ [ Agirre et al, 1992] ] Verb forms are similarly complex, agreeing with the subject, the direct object and several other arguments.

East Asian languages (isolating)

Some of the major Eastern Asian languages (such as the various Chinese languages, Vietnamese, and Thai) are not overtly inflected, or show very little overt inflection (though they used to show more), so they are considered analytic languages (also known as "isolating languages").


Japanese shows a high degree of overt inflection on verbs, less so on adjectives, and very little on nouns, but it is always strictly agglutinative and extremely regular. Formally, every noun phrase must be marked for case, but this is done by invariable particles (clitic postpositions). (Many grammarians consider Japanese particles to be separate words, and therefore not an inflection, while others consider agglutination a type of overt inflection, and therefore consider Japanese nouns as overtly inflected.)


The Chinese family of languages, in general, does not possess overt inflectional morphology. Chinese words generally comprise of one or two syllables, each of which corresponds to a written character and individual morpheme. Since most morphemes are monosyllabic in the Chinese languages, [Norman, p. 84.] Chinese is quite resistant to inflectional changes; instead, Chinese uses lexical means for achieving covert inflectional tranparency. While European languages use more often overt inflection to mark a word's function in a sentence, the Chinese languages use to a larger extent word order as a grammatical marking system. Whereas in English the first-person singular nominative "I" changes to "me" when used in the accusative - that is, when "I" is the object of a verb - Chinese simply uses word order to mark such a distinction. An example from Mandarin: 我给了他一本书 ("wǒ gěile tā yī běn shū") 'I gave him a book'. Here 我 ("wǒ") means 'I' and 他 ("tā") means 'him'. However, 'He gave me a book' would be: 他给了我一本书 ("tā gěile wǒ yī běn shū"). 我 ("Wǒ") and 他 ("Tā") simply change places in the sentence to indicate that their case has switched: there is no overt inflection in the form of the words. In classical Chinese, pronouns were overtly inflected as to case. However, these overt case forms are no longer used; most of the alternative pronouns are considered archaic in modern Mandarin Chinese. Classically, 我 ("wǒ") was used solely as the first person accusative. 吾 ("Wú") was generally used as the first person nominative. [Norman, p. 89.]

Auxiliary languages

Auxiliary languages, such as Esperanto, Ido, and Interlingua have comparatively simple inflectional systems.

In Esperanto, nouns and adjectives are inflected for case (nominative, accusative) and number (singular, plural), according to a simple paradigm without irregularities. Verbs are not inflected for person or number, but they are inflected for tense (past, present, future) and mood (indicative, infinitive, conditional, jussive). They also form active and passive participles, which may be past, present or future. All verbs are regular. (See main article on Esperanto grammar.)

Ido has a different form for each verbal tense (past, present, future, volitive and imperative) plus an infinitive, and both a present and past participle. There are though no inflections for person or number and all verbs are regular.

Nouns are marked for number (singular and plural), and the accusative case may be shown in certain situations, typically when the direct object of a sentence precedes its verb. On the other hand, adjectives are unmarked for gender, number or case (unless they stand on their own, without a noun, in which case they take on the same desinences as the missing noun would have taken). The definite article "la" ("the") remains unaltered regardless of gender or case, and also of number, except when there is no other word to show plurality. Pronouns are identical in all cases, though exceptionally the accusative case may be marked, as for nouns.

Interlingua, in contrast with the Romance languages, has no irregular verb conjugations, and its verb forms are the same for all persons and numbers. It does, however, have compound verb tenses similar to those in the Romance, Germanic, and Slavic languages: "ille ha vivite", "he has lived"; "illa habeva vivite", "she had lived". Nouns are inflected by number, taking a plural "-s", but rarely by gender: only when referring to a male or female being. Interlingua has no noun-adjective agreement by gender, number, or case. As a result, adjectives ordinarily have no inflections. They may take the plural form if they are being used in place of a noun: "le povres", "the poor".

ee also

*Agreement (linguistics)
*Marker (linguistics)
*Synthetic language
*Uninflected word
*Weak suppletion


References and recommended reading

* Agirre, E.; Alegria I.; Arregi, X.; Artola, X.; Díaz de Ilarraza, A.; Maritxalar M.; et al. (1992). XUXEN: A spelling checker/corrector for Basque based on two-level morphology. "Proceedings of the Third Conference of Applied Natural Language Processing". Online version:
* Bauer, Laurie. (2003). "Introducing linguistic morphology" (2nd ed.). Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press. ISBN 0-87840-343-4.
* Bubenik, Vit. (1999). "An introduction to the study of morphology". LINCON coursebooks in linguistics, 07. Muenchen: LINCOM Europa. ISBN 3-89586-570-2.
* Haspelmath, Martin. (2002). "Understanding morphology". London: Arnold (co-published by Oxford University Press). ISBN 0340760257 (hb); ISBN 0-340-76206-5 (pbk).
* Katamba, Francis. (1993). "Morphology". Modern linguistics series. New York: St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-10101-5 (hb); ISBN 0-312-10356-5 (pbk).
* Matthews, Peter. (1991). "Morphology" (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-41043-6 (hb); ISBN 0-521-42256-6 (pbk).
* Nichols, Johanna. (1986). Head-marking and dependent-marking grammar. "Language", "62" (1), 56-119.
* Norman, Jerry. (1988). "Chinese". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-29653-6 (pbk).
* De Reuse, Willem J. (1996). "A practical grammar of the San Carlos Apache language". LINCOM Studies in Native American Linguistics 51. LINCOM. ISBN 3895868612
* Spencer, Andrew, & Zwicky, Arnold M. (Eds.) (1998). "The handbook of morphology". Blackwell handbooks in linguistics. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 0-631-18544-5.
* Stump, Gregory T. (2001). "Inflectional morphology: A theory of paradigm structure". Cambridge studies in linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-78047-0.
* Van Valin, Robert D., Jr. (2001). "An introduction to syntax". Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-63566-7 (pbk); ISBN 0-521-63199-8 (hb).

External links

* [ Inflection entry at]
* SIL: [ What is "inflection"?]
* SIL: [ What is an "inflectional affix"?]
* SIL: [ What is an "inflectional category"?]
* SIL: [ What is a "morphological process"?]
* SIL: [ What is "derivation"?]
* SIL: [ Comparison of inflection and derivation]
* Lexicon of Linguistics: [ Inflection] , [ Derivation]
* Lexicon of Linguistics: [ Conjugation] , [ Declension]
* Lexicon of Linguistics: [ Base] , [ Stem] , [ Root]
* Lexicon of Linguistics: [ Defective Paradigm]
* Lexicon of Linguistics: [ Strong Verb]
* Lexicon of Linguistics: [ Inflection Phrase (IP)] , [ INFL] , [ AGR] , [ Tense]
* Lexicon of Linguistics: [ Lexicalist Hypothesis]

* SIL: [ What is an "agglutinative language"?]

* SIL: [ What is a "fusional language"?]
* SIL: [ What is an "isolating language"?]
* SIL: [ What is a "polysynthetic language"?]
* Lexicon of Linguistics: [ Agglutinating Language] , [ Fusional Morphology] , [ Isolating Language] , [ Polysynthetic Language]

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