LINGUIST List 13.1172

Sun Apr 28 2002

Sum: Distribution of Language Complexity

Editor for this issue: Marie Klopfenstein <>


  1. Eileen Thorsos, distribution of language complexity

Message 1: distribution of language complexity

Date: Sun, 28 Apr 2002 02:57:57 -0500
From: Eileen Thorsos <>
Subject: distribution of language complexity

Dear all,

On March 22nd, I posted the following query: "I'd like to find out about
the global distribution of language complexity. Particularly, I wonder if
widespread languages are less complex than local languages. (Clearly, this
question requires definitions of both 'widespread' and 'complex'.) Does
anyone have any information or ideas regarding this?"

Many thanks to everyone who contributed their ideas. Here is a
much-delayed summary of the responses I received:

Richard Sproat pointed out that we would probably need to define
"language" as well as "complex" and "widespread", since dialects may vary
in complexity.

"Widespread" could easily be defined by number of speakers and number of
countries involved (Mike Maxwell). However, "centralized
societies" vs. "decentralized societies" may be the more important
distinction, since centralized societies have more pressure leaning toward
language uniformity (Dave Odden). Most people took "widespread" to mean
very widespread -- English, Spanish, Russian, French, Arabic,
Chinese. Anthea Fraser Gupta also suggested the idea of "Languages of
Wider Communication", which cover discontiguous areas. Several pointed
out that the most widespread languages are of European origin, which is a
confounding factor (Odden). I think it may make the most sense to
consider a continuum of language spread -- from very localized to
globalized -- and to see if it correlates with the continuum of language

However, a definition of "complex" is sticky (Maxwell). We need to be
careful of falling into generalizations (ex: "Westerncentric ideas of the
great learnability of big languages and also Noble Savage ideas of the
greater expressive potential of indigenous languages") (Greg
Stoltz). Linguists tend to assume that all languages are equally complex
� that simplicity in one area indicates complexity in another, and vice
versa (Gupta). Sheri Wells Jensen's dissertation supports this idea, for
she found that among languages with different loci of complexity, speakers
do not make statistically significantly different numbers of errors. She
found some overall pattern of errors, but also found some clumping of
errors in areas where that language was structurally more complex. (She
only looked at widespread languages.) We could ask, are widespread
languages complex in different areas than local languages?

In this vein, Dave Odden suggests a non-quantitatively based
observation: We see less morphological and phonological complexity in
languages with a wider geographical distribution. Dieter Wunderlich
proposes that "for a local language where the common background of
speakers is high it is preferred to have fast access to morphological
structures which are possibly lexicalized. By contrast, for a nonlocal
language where the common background of speakers is low it is preferred to
have access to syntactic structures (focus, topic, explicit
arguments)". This is similar to the idea of synthetic vs. analytic
approaches to conveying information (morphological vs. syntactic
complexity, I believe), which might vary between isolated languages and
languages in contact with other languages (from Charles-James Bailey, via
Tomasz Wisniewski; see also Trudgill 1992).

A morphological view of complexity might be many meanings or aspects per
word (Wisniewski). Size of lexicon is a popular-culture view of
complexity, but not a good one (Gupta). Even so, it may be related to how
many different things the language is used to talk about rather than
number of speakers (Duncan MacGregor) although I predict that languages
with more speakers will be used in more contexts. The complexity of the
connection between language and writing system is also a biased viewpoint
(Gupta). But, written systems may slow/stop long-term language change
processes such as a hypothetical cycle from agglutinative to inflecting to
analytical and back again (MacGregor). Widespread languages may undergo
degrees of creolization through contact with other languages, simplifying
them, but once nativized, that effect would wear off (Gupta).

I conclude with another question, following up on information suggested by
my respondents. Are all languages equally complex? When did this idea
arise? Who first suggested it? How widespread is it within the
linguistics community? Are there quantitative tests of it other than
Sheri Wells-Jensen's? Nearly every mention of it that I have found has
not been cited.

Again, I would like to thank everyone who responded for the help they've
given me. Here are some suggested references:

Bailey, Charles-James N. 1982. On the yin and yang nature of language, Ann
Arbor, Karoma Publishers. (Tomasz Wisniewski)

Kusters, Wouter. Forthcoming dissertation addresses "four cases of
language expansion: Arabic, Swahili, Quechua, and Scandinavian, and the
effects of becoming a lingua franca on the verbal inflectional
- - 2000. Morphological simplification: more than erosion? Languages in
contact. Ed. by Dicky Gilbers, John Nerbonn, and Jos Schaeken. Amsterdam
& Atlanta, GA: Rodopi. 225-230.
- - and Pieter Muysken. 2001. The complexities of arguing about
complexity. In: Linguistic Typology. Ed. by Frans Plank. 182-185.
- - unpubl. The fate of complex languages: Old Norse and Classical Arabic
in the age of globalisation.

Nichols, Johanna. 1992. Linguistic Diversity in Space and Time. Chicago &
London: University of Chicago Press. (John Atkinson & Jennifer Nycz)

Trudgill, Peter. 1989. Contact and Isolation in Linguistic Change. In
Language Change: Contributions to the Study of Its Causes. Edited by Leiv
Breivik and Erst H'kon Jahr. Berlin: de Gruyter. (Bruce Spencer)

Trudgill, Peter. 1992. Dialect Typology and Social Structure. Language
Contact: Theoretical and empirical studies ed. by E.H. Jahr. Berlin, New
York: Mouton de Gruyter. 195-211. (Robert Orr)

Wells-Jensen, Sheri. 1999. Cognitive correlates of linguistic
complexity: a cross-linguistic perspective. Dissertation. Buffalo:
University of New York.

Eileen Thorsos
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