Language Complexity and You: Part II

April 20, 2016

You may have noticed a dramatic decrease in blog posts here over the last year or so. I’ve been quite busy with school and some pretty exciting upcoming plans. This will probably be the last post of real substance to this blog, but Oona and I will be maintaining a new blog (with a more logical name, perhaps) for our upcoming travels. Stay tuned for a redirect to that blog some time in the near future.


The time has come for a bit of a reappraisal of the situation outlined in this blog post from back in 2013. This topic has had the linguistics world abuzz for quite some time with new and pretty compelling research that all languages might not be of the same complexity level.

The non-linguist’s response to this news would probably be something like “duh”, as the whole argument to the contrary was something repeated by people like me time and time again in defense of the “less complex” languages of the world. The refrain was something like “just because English is less morphologically complex than Chechen doesn’t mean it’s less complex overall, just look at the syntax!” The idea of needing to defend the less complex languages of the world is a bit silly to begin with, but for whatever reason most people seem to get a kick out of the idea that their language is more complex than some other one, as if more complex is somehow better.

To make it absolutely clear, this post in no way exonerates the misguided and confused “infographic”, which is the subject of the aforelinked blog post. The rebuttals listed therein still stand, and that infographic is still stupid.

However, my stance on the subject of language complexity overall has been relaxed considerably, due in large part to research such as this (disregard the broken link, I drafted this post a long time ago). Newmeyer and Joseph (2012) outline the extralinguistic considerations of the language complexity debate/consensus over the last hundred-or-so years and conclude (in so many words) that we may have blinded ourselves to the real issue by political correctness. Before I go on, it’s worth mentioning again that writing systems play no part in this particular topic, so the intricacies of a logographic writing system such as Chinese does not contribute to the grammar’s complexity.

There is ample historical evidence that several factors can and do contribute to the simplification of a given language over time. Look no further than English for a case study. English, a Germanic language of Indo-European stock, had morphological case marking at some point during its history. At some point later than that it lost most of that case marking leaving us with what we have today: very few morphological case distinctions and much more importance on the syntax. While its true that the complexity, or functionality, just relocated from the morphology to the syntax, it’s also true that this process facilitated a “cleaning up” of the grammar; a tidying of historical loose ends. Morphological affixes have a tendency of changing, in irregular and sometimes unpredictable ways, themselves and the root word to which they attach. Pulling these affixes off and rendering them as syntactic units themselves typically free both the affix and the root from their affixation-induced stem changes. Clearly there does occasionally remain allomorphic variation within these syntactic units (“a” vs. “an”, for example), but by-and-large the process is a lot cleaner than the mess of stem changes one finds in Finnish, for example.

So why did English lose its cases and become more friendly to the learner? Because a lot of people began learning it as adults all at once (Celts and Scandinavians in England). Morphological and phonological complexity is generally harder to grasp as adults than syntactic complexity. So when you get a huge influx of adult language learners (about 50% of the population, according to Newmeyer and Joesph) learning a complex language, their imperfect grasp of the morphology and/or phonology leads to a leveling of declension paradigms and the more subtle phonological distinctions with a relocation of that complexity into the syntax. Children learning a language don’t pose the same problem because they’re much better at learning language and dealing with the irregularities of it. It’s only when you get a major proportion of a population struggling with the dominant language that you see these changes come about.

With that in mind, it’s typically the more isolated, less influential languages that remain complex and retain their idiosyncrasies. The more adult learners of a language that you have the more likely those changes are to work themselves out. Keep in mind, however, that language is uniquely-suited to describing the world around you. We are all still capable, in any language of the world, to describe anything that we need to describe, in one way or another.

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