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Attempts to formalize the definition have not been widely taken up, although some people do use them.There's some discussion in the comments, though, so if you want the view of someone who likes the term you can read his explanations.
Using extensive data from Mohawk and other languages, Baker proposes a macroparametic view of polysynthesis, where a cluster of properties (adjunct behavior of NPs, lack of infinitives, pronoun drop, noun incorporation, discontinuous constituency, etc.
etc) are all tied to the requirement that theta roles in these languages must be expressed on items (either agreement or incorporated nominals) that are part of the verb head.
The Wikipedia page actually has a decent write up of the concept, where I snagged that from.
Most typologists consider the casual use of "polysynthetic" to mean "highly synthetic" to not be meaningful category, because it covers a broad variety of languages that might not have many formal properties in common.
Some authors apply it to languages with high morpheme-to-word ratios, whilst others use it for languages that are highly head-marking, or those that frequently use noun incorporation.
Illustration Essay Outline - Polysynthesis Parameter
At the same time, the question of whether to call a particular language polysynthetic is complicated by the fact that morpheme and word boundaries are not always clear cut, and languages may be highly synthetic in one area but less synthetic in other areas (e.g., verbs and nouns in Southern Athabaskan languages or Inuit languages).
Haven't worked on it in ages, but all my info on it is up on CWS if you want to take a look.
Is there a distinction between highly synthetic and polysynthetic languages?
Professor and Chair Contact: Linguistics Department 301 Smith Building, CB#3155 University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3155 Tel: (919) 962-1192 (department office) Email: mbecker (at) edu Link to my CV My background is in syntactic theory and the acquisition of syntax, both morphosyntax and argument structure, in children (monolingual first language).
I’m also interested in bilingualism, language revitalization, Specific Language Impairment, computational modeling of language learning, and experimental methodologies for studying implicit linguistic knowledge.