An analytic language is a language that conveys grammatical relationships without using inflectional morphemes. A grammatical construction can similarly be called analytic if it uses unbound morphemes, which are separate words, and/or word order. Analytic languages are in contrast to synthetic languages. To convey their meaning analytic languages rely on the use of definite and indefinite articles, which are rarely used in strongly synthetic languages; strict word order; various prepositions, postpositions, particles and modifiers, idiomatic meanings and context.
A related concept is the isolating language, which is about a low number of any type of morphemes per word, taking into account derivational morphemes as well. A purely isolating language would be analytic by necessity, lacking inflectional morphemes by definition. However, the reverse is not necessarily true: a language can have derivational morphemes while lacking inflectional morphemes. For example, Mandarin Chinese has many compound words, giving it a moderately high ratio of morphemes per word, yet, since it has almost no inflectional affixes at all to convey grammatical relationships, it is a very analytic language.
The term "analytic" is commonly used in a relative rather than an absolute sense. The currently most prominent and widely used analytic language is modern English, which has lost much of the inflectional morphology inherited from Proto-Indo-European, Proto-Germanic, Old English over the centuries and has not gained any new inflectional morphemes in the meantime, making it more analytic than most Indo-European languages. For example, while Proto-Indo-European had much more complex grammatical conjugation, grammatical genders, dual number and inflections for eight or nine cases in its nouns, pronouns, adjectives, numerals, participles, postpositions and determiners, standard English has nearly lost nearly all of them (except for three modified cases for pronouns) along with genders and dual number and simplified its conjugation.
For comparison, nouns in Russian inflect for at least six cases, most of them descended from Proto-Indo-European cases, whose functions English translates using other strategies like prepositions, verbal voice, word order and possessive 's instead.
However, English is also not totally analytic in its nouns as it does use inflections for number, e.g. "one day, three days; one boy, four boys". An isolating language Mandarin Chinese has, in contrast, no inflections in its nouns at all: compare 一天 yī tiān "one day", 三天 sān tiān "three days" (literally "three day"); 一个男孩 yī ge nánhái "one boy" (lit. "one [entity of] male child"), 四个男孩 sì ge nánhái "four boys" (lit. "four [entity of] male child"). Instead, English is considered to be weakly inflected.
- Li, Charles and Thompson, Sandra A., Mandarin Chinese: A Functional Reference Grammar, University of California Press, 1981, p. 46.