Language complexity

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Language complexity is a topic in linguistics which can be divided into several sub-topics such as phonological, morphological, syntactic, and semantic complexity.[1] [2] The subject also carries importance for language evolution.[3] Although the concept of language complexity is an old one, the current interest has largely emerged since the beginning of the 21st century as it was previously considered problematic in terms of political correctness.[4][page needed]

Language complexity has been studied less than many other traditional fields of linguistics. While the consensus is turning towards recognizing that complexity is a suitable research area, a central focus has been on methodological choices. Some languages, particularly pidgins and creoles, are considered simpler than most other languages, but there is no direct ranking, and no universal method of measurement although several possibilities are now proposed within different schools of analysis.[5]


Throughout the 19th century, differential complexity was taken for granted. The classical languages Latin and Greek, as well as Sanskrit, were considered to possess qualities which could be achieved by the rising European national languages only through an elaboration that would give them the necessary structural and lexical complexity that would meet the requirements of an advanced civilization. At the same time, languages described as 'primitive' were naturally considered to reflect the simplicity of their speakers. On the other hand, Friedrich Schlegel noted that some nations "which appear to be at the very lowest grade of intellectual culture", such as Basque, Sámi and some native American languages, possess a striking degree of elaborateness.[5]

Darwin considered the apparent complexity of many non-Western languages as problematic for evolution theory which in his time held that less advanced people should have less complex languages. Darwin's suggestion was that simplicity and irregularities were the result of extensive language contact while "the extremely complex and regular construction of many barbarous languages" should be seen as an utmost perfection of the one and same evolutionary process.[6]

Equal complexity hypothesis[edit]

During the 20th century, linguists and anthropologists adopted a standpoint that would reject any nationalist ideas about superiority of the languages of establishment. The first known quote that puts forward the idea that all languages are equally complex comes from Rulon S. Wells III, 1954, who attributes it to Charles F. Hockett. Within a year, the same idea found its way to Encyclopædia Britannica:

"All languages of today are equally complex(.) -- There are no 'primitive' languages, but all languages seem to be equally old and equally developed."[5]

While laymen never ceased to consider certain languages as simple and others as complex, such a view was erased from official contexts. For instance, the 1971 edition of Guinness Book of World Records featured Saramaccan, a creole language, as "the world's least complex language". According to linguists, this claim was "not founded on any serious evidence", and it was removed from later editions.[7] Apparent complexity differences in certain areas were explained with a balancing force by which the simplicity in one area would be compensated with the complexity of another; e.g. David Crystal, 1987:

"All languages have a complex grammar: there may be relative simplicity in one respect (e.g., no word-endings), but there seems always to be relative complexity in another (e.g., word-position)".[8]

In 2001 the compensation hypothesis was eventually refuted by the African-American creolist John McWhorter who pointed out the absurdity of the idea that, as languages change, each would have to include a mechanism that calibrates it according to the complexity of all the other 6,000 or so languages around the world; but linguistics has no knowledge of any such a mechanism.[8]

Revisiting the idea of differential complexity, McWhorter argued that it is indeed creole languages, such as Saramaccan, that are structurally "much simpler than all but very few older languages". In McWhorter's notion this is not problematic in terms of the equality of creole languages because simpler structures convey logical meanings in the most straightforward manner, while increased language complexity is largely a question of features which may not add much to the functionality, or improve usefulness, of the language. Examples of such features are inalienable possessive marking, switch-reference marking, syntactic asymmetries between matrix and subordinate clauses, grammatical gender, and other secondary features which are most typically absent in creoles.[8]

During the years following McWhorter's article, several books and dozens of articles were published on the topic.[4][page needed] As to date, there have been research projects on language complexity, and several workshops for researchers have been organised by various universities.[1]

Complexity metrics[edit]

At a general level, language complexity can be characterized as the number and variety of elements, and the elaborateness of their interrelational structure.[9][10] This general characterisation can be broken down into sub-areas:

  • Syntagmatic complexity: number of parts, such as word length in terms of phonemes, syllables etc.
  • Paradigmatic complexity: variety of parts, such as phoneme inventory size, number of distinctions in a grammatical category, e.g. aspect
  • Organizational complexity: e.g. ways of arranging components, phonotactic restrictions, variety of word orders.
  • Hierarchic complexity: e.g. recursion, lexical–semantic hierarchies.[10]

Measuring complexity is considered difficult, and the comparison of whole natural languages as a daunting task. On a more detailed level, it is possible to demonstrate that some structures are more complex than others. Phonology and morphology are areas where such comparisons have traditionally been made. For instance, linguistics has tools for the assessment of the phonological system of any given language. As for the study of syntactic complexity, grammatical rules have been proposed as a basis,[8] but generative frameworks, such as Minimalist Program and Simpler Syntax, have been less successful in defining complexity and its predictions than non-formal ways of description.[11][page needed]

Many researchers suggest that several different concepts may be needed when approaching complexity: entropy, size, description length, effective complexity, information, connectivity, irreducibility, low probability, syntactic depth etc. Research suggests that while methodological choices affect the results, even rather crude analytic tools may provide a feasible starting point for measuring grammatical complexity.[10]

A comparison[edit]

Guy (1994)[12] illustrates the point[which?] by comparing two Santo languages he has worked on that are about as closely related as French and Spanish, Tolomako and Sakao, both spoken in the village of Port Olry, Vanuatu. Because these languages are very similar to each other, and equally distant from English, he holds that neither is inherently biased as being seen as more easy or difficult by an English speaker (see difficulty of learning languages).


Sakao has more, and more difficult, vowel distinctions than Tolomako:

Tolomako vowels
close i u
mid e o
open a
Sakao vowels (partial)
close i y u
close mid e ø o
open mid ɛ œ ɔ
open a ɒ

In addition, Sakao has a close vowel /ɨ/ that is unspecified for being rounded or unrounded, front or back, and is always unstressed. It also has the two diphthongs /œɛ, ɒɔ/, whereas Tolomako has none.

In addition, it has more and more difficult consonant distinctions:

Tolomako consonants
labial alveolar velar
nasal m n
plosive p t k
affricate ts
fricative β ɣ
trill r
approximant l
Sakao consonants
labial alveolar palatal velar glottal
nasal m n ŋ
plosive p t k
fricative β ð ɣ h
trill r
voiceless trill
approximant w l j

In addition, Sakao consonants may be long or short: /œβe/ "drum", /œββe/ "bed"

Tolomako has a simple syllable structure, maximally consonant–vowel–vowel. It is not clear if Sakao even has syllables; that is, whether trying to divide Sakao words into meaningful syllables is even possible.

Tolomako syllable structure
Sakao syllable structure
V (a vowel or diphthong) surrounded by any number of consonants:
V /i/ "thou", CCVCCCC (?) /mhɛrtpr/ "having sung and stopped singing thou kept silent"
[m- 2nd pers., hɛrt "to sing", -p perfective, -r continuous].


With inalienably possessed nouns, Tolomako inflections are consistently regular, whereas Sakao is full of irregular nouns:

Tolomako Sakao English
na tsiɣo-ku œsɨŋœ-ɣ "my mouth"
na tsiɣo-mu œsɨŋœ-m "thy mouth"
na tsiɣo-na ɔsɨŋɔ-n "his/her/its mouth"
na tsiɣo-... œsœŋ-... "...'s mouth"
Tolomako Sakao English
na βulu-ku uly-ɣ "my hair"
na βulu-mu uly-m "thy hair"
na βulu-na ulœ-n "his/her/its hair"
na βulu-... nøl-... "...'s hair"

Here Tolomako "mouth" is invariably tsiɣo- and "hair" invariably βulu-, whereas Sakao "mouth" is variably œsɨŋœ-, ɔsɨŋɔ-, œsœŋ- and "hair" variably uly-, ulœ-, nøl-.


With deixis, Tolomako has three degrees (here/this, there/that, yonder/yon), whereas Sakao has seven.

Tolomako has a preposition to distinguish the object of a verb from an instrument; indeed, a single preposition, ne, is used for all relationships of space and time. Sakao, on the other hand, treats both as objects of the verb, with a transitive suffix -ɨn that shows the verb has two objects, but letting context disambiguate which is which:

mo losi na poe ne na matsa
S/he hits ART pig PREP ART club
"He hits (kills) the pig with a club"
mɨ-jil-ɨn a-ra a-mas
S/he-hits-TRANS ART-pig ART-club
"He hits (kills) the pig with a club"

The Sakao could also be mɨjilɨn amas ara

The Sakao strategy involves polysynthetic syntax, as opposed to the isolating syntax of Tolomako:

Sakao polysynthesis
Mɔssɔnɛshɔβrɨn aða ɛðɛ     (or: ɛðɛ aða)
mɔ-sɔn-nɛs-hɔβ-r-ɨn a-ða ɛ-ðɛ
s/he-shoots-fish-follows-CONT-TRANS ART-bow ART-sea
"He kept on walking along the shore shooting fish with a bow."

Here aða "the bow" is the instrumental of sɔn "to shoot", and ɛðɛ "the sea" is the direct object of hoβ "to follow", which because they are combined into a single verb, are marked as ditransitive with the suffix -ɨn. Because sɔn "to shoot" has the incorporated object nɛs "fish", the first consonant geminates for ssɔn; ssɔn-nɛs, being part of one word, then reduces to ssɔnɛs. And indeed, the previous example of killing a pig could be put more succinctly, but grammatically more complexly, in Sakao by incorporating the object 'pig' into the verb:

mɨjilrapɨn amas
mɨ-jil-ra-p-ɨn a-mas
s/he-hit-pig-PFV-TRANS ART-club

Guy asks rhetorically, "Which of the two languages spoken in Port-Olry do you think the Catholic missionaries learnt and used? Could that possibly be because it was easier than the other?"

Language complexity and creoles[edit]

It is generally acknowledged that, as young languages, creoles are necessarily simpler than non-creoles.[13] Guy believes this to be untrue[citation needed]; after a comparison with Antillean Creole, he writes, "I assure you that it is far, far more complex than Tolomako!", despite being based on his native language, French.


  1. ^ a b Miestamo, Matti; Sinnemäki, Kaius; Karlsson (eds.), Fred (2008). Language Complexity: Typology, Contact, Change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. p. 356. doi:10.1075/slcs.94. 
  2. ^ Wurzel, Wolfgang Ullrich (2001). "Creoles, complexity, and linguistic change". Linguistic Typology. Berlin: De Gruyter. 5 (2/3): 377–387. ISSN 1430-0532. 
  3. ^ Sampson, Geoffrey; Gil, David; Trudgill (eds.), Peter (2009). Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 328. ISBN 9780199545223. 
  4. ^ a b Newmeyer, Frederick J.; Preston (eds.), Lauren B. (2014). Measuring Grammatical Complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 9780199685301. 
  5. ^ a b c Joseph, John E.; Newmeyer, Frederick J. (2012). "'All Languages Are Equally Complex': The rise and fall of a consensus". Historiographia Linguistica. Amsterdam: John Benjamins. 39 (3): 341–368. doi:10.1075/hl.39.2-3.08jos. 
  6. ^ Darwin, Charles (1871). The descent of man, and selection in relation to sex. London: John Murray. OCLC 39301709. 
  7. ^ Arends, Jacques (2001). "Simple grammars, complex languages". Linguistic Typology. Berlin: De Gruyter. 5 (2/3): 180–182. ISSN 1430-0532. 
  8. ^ a b c d McWhorter, John H. (2001). "The world's simplest grammars are creole grammars". Linguistic Typology. Berlin: De Gruyter. 5 (2/3): 125–166. ISSN 1430-0532. 
  9. ^ Rescher, Nicholas (1998). Complexity. A philosophical overview. New Brunswick: Transaction. ISBN 1560003774. 
  10. ^ a b c Sinnemäki, Kaius (2011). Language universals and linguistic complexity : Three case studies in core argument marking (Thesis). University of Helsinki. Retrieved 2016-04-28. 
  11. ^ Hawkins, John A. (2014), "Major contributions from formal linguistics to the complexity debate", in Newmeyer, Frederick J.; Preston, Laurel B., Measuring Grammatical Complexity, Oxford: University Press, doi:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199685301.003.0002, ISBN 9780199685301 
  12. ^ Jacques Guy, "sci.lang FAQ", message-ID: 3bjmtc$ci3@medici.trl.OZ.AU, sci.lang, 1994, December 1
  13. ^ "Creole and pidgin language structure in cross-linguistic perspective | Abstracts". Retrieved 2015-08-11.