Language complexity

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It is sometimes said[by whom?] that all human languages are equally complex. This is partially an overcorrection of racialist theories that held that "primitive" people spoke "primitive" languages, but also a potential implication of Chomskyan linguistics.[according to whom?]

A comparison[edit]

Guy (1994)[1] 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:

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.[2] 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. ^ Jacques Guy, "sci.lang FAQ", message-ID: 3bjmtc$ci3@medici.trl.OZ.AU, sci.lang, 1994, December 1
  2. ^ "Creole and pidgin language structure in cross-linguistic perspective | Abstracts". Retrieved 2015-08-11.