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LINGUIST List 23.5022

Sun Dec 02 2012

Review: General Linguistics, Language Acquisition, Sociolinguistics: Kortmann & Szmrecsanyi (eds., 2012)

Editor for this issue: Anja Wanner <anjalinguistlist.org>

Date: 02-Dec-2012
From: Natalie Operstein <nopersteinfullerton.edu>
Subject: Linguistic Complexity
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Book announced at http://linguistlist.org/issues/23/23-2460.html

Editor: Bernd Kortmann
Editor: Benedikt Szmrecsanyi
Title: Linguistic Complexity
Subtitle: Second Language Acquisition, Indigenization, Contact
Series Title: De Gruyter linguae & litterae 13
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Year: 2012

Reviewers: Natalie Operstein and Amber Clontz, California State University, Fullerton

EDITORS: Kortmann, Bernd and Benedikt Szmrecsanyi
TITLE: Linguistic Complexity
SUBTITLE: Second Language Acquisition, Indigenization, Contact
SERIES TITLE: De Gruyter linguae & litterae, Vol. 13
YEAR: 2012

Natalie Operstein, Department of English, Comparative Literature, and
Linguistics, California State University, Fullerton

Amber Clontz, Department of English, Comparative Literature, and Linguistics,
California State University, Fullerton


This volume brings together papers from a workshop on “Linguistic complexity
in interlanguage varieties, L2 varieties, and contact languages” held at the
Freiburg Institute for Advanced Studies (FRIAS) in May of 2009. The volume
contributes further to our understanding of the notion of linguistic
complexity, which has enjoyed a surge of interest in recent years (cf.
especially Kusters 2003, Dahl 2004, McWhorter 2007, Miestamo et al. 2008,
Sampson et al. 2009, and Trudgill 2011). The focus is on contact varieties of
English, including second-language, indigenized (nativized) and creolized
varieties. The broad aim of the volume is to explore intra-linguistic
complexity, as it pertains to English, as a preliminary to approaching the
more formidable task of evaluating complexity cross-linguistically. An
additional aim is to assemble definitions of complexity specific to the three
fields -- second language acquisition (SLA), creolistics and
indigenization/nativization studies -- with the goal of arriving at a
language-, field- and theory-neutral definition.

The volume consists of ten papers and a preface by Diane Larsen-Freeman, which
emphasizes the necessity for critical reflection on the multifaceted issue of
linguistic complexity. The introductory chapter by Benedikt Szmrecsanyi and
Bernd Kortmann, “Introduction: Linguistic Complexity. Second Language
Acquisition, Indigenization, Contact” (pp. 6-34), briefly surveys literature
on linguistic complexity, beginning with the well-known 2001 special issue of
''Linguistic Typology'' devoted to this topic, outlines complexity-related
research in progress at FRIAS and summarizes the volume’s contributions. The
introductory chapter also outlines the volume’s objectives and provides a
summary of how the three fields’ interests in linguistic complexity intersect.

In the following summary, the individual papers are grouped by the category of
language variety they address -- creole, L2 or indigenized English -- rather
than the order of their appearance in the volume.

There are three papers devoted to English-lexifier creoles. Jeff Siegel
(“Accounting for Analyticity in Creoles,” pp. 35-61) focuses on morphological
complexity in expanded pidgins and creoles and provides a detailed discussion
of the notion of complexity, which he divides into componential (defined by a
high number of components) and structural (difficulty for analysis). He
suggests that the former may be measured by the amount of grammatical
morphology and the latter by reference to the degree of grammaticalization of
the functional markers. The main body of the paper is devoted to a discussion
of analyticity in pidgin-creoles, which is derived in part from reductive
simplification by speakers of the lexifier, but mostly from developmental
simplicity (in other words, lack of development) in adult speakers of the
substrate languages. Siegel examines, and ultimately rejects, the hypothesis
that the analytic grammatical markers in pidgin-creoles, such as their tense,
mood and aspect (TMA) systems, result from L1 transfer during “normal” adult
SLA. The alternative explanation he proposes draws on the notion of
interlanguage expansion in the absence of a target L2, which in the case of
pidgin-creole genesis springs from unavailability of the lexifier. In the
conditions of functional expansion without targeting L2, speakers draw on the
grammatical structures of their L1s.

In “The Complexity of the Personal and Possessive Pronoun System of Norf’k”
(pp. 101-126), Peter Mühlhäusler provides a detailed account of the pronominal
system of Pitkern Norf’k, an English-based creole of the Pacific. A major
finding of the paper is that the pronominal system of Norf’k is vastly more
complex than those of its source languages, including English, which leads
Mühlhäusler to challenge the notion that creoles are more analytic than their
lexifiers. A related observation is that Norf’k pronouns express the
complexity of the society in which they are used, leading the author to
suggest that the notion of complexity is meaningless unless it takes into
account languages’ ecologies.

In “Complexity Hotspot: The Copula in Saramaccan and its Implications” (pp.
243-264), John McWhorter outlines his understanding of the complexity metric,
which combines the notions of overspecification (the degree to which grammars
“overtly and obligatorily mark semantic distinctions”, p. 244), structural
elaboration (“the number of rules (in phonology and syntax) required to
generate grammatical forms”, p. 245) and irregularity (the degree to which
grammars exhibit irregularity and suppletion). After demonstrating each type
of complexity in copula constructions in the Surinamese creole Saramaccan,
McWhorter argues that this complexity arose from language-internal rather than
contact-induced processes.

Three papers address simplification in indigenized varieties of English
(“Outer Circle Englishes”). “Deletions, Antideletions and Complexity Theory,
with Special Reference to Black South African and Singaporean Englishes” by
Rajend Mesthrie (pp. 90-100) compares the notion of simplification as it is
instantiated in two very different indigenized varieties of English. According
to Mesthrie, Black South African English has the tendency to explicitly
include elements that are omitted in Standard English. Among the processes
which conspire to produce this effect are insertion and “undeletion,” the
latter as in “It was something that I hope it will not happen again.” In this
respect, Black South African English contrasts with Singaporean English, which
tends in the opposite direction by deleting elements which are obligatorily
present in Standard English, as in “He not yet eat lunch”. Mesthrie shows that
although both these L2 varieties are simplified by comparison with the target,
they do so in opposing ways, offering food for thought in the context of
intra-linguistic complexity. His own explanation for the divergent behavior of
the two varieties invokes the influence of differing substrata, ranging from
those which “disfavor deletion” (p. 100) to those which are highly elliptical
and analytic.

In “Complexity as a Function of Iconicity: The Case of Complement Clause
Constructions in New Englishes” (pp. 156-191), Maria Steger and Edgar W.
Schneider hypothesize that New Englishes are expected to be simpler than
Standard British English in the extent of their iconicity, or tendency toward
isomorphism between function and form. This study sets out to investigate the
levels of iconicity in complement clause constructions of verbs which usually
take to-complements in Standard British English, as in “John
wanted/expected/persuaded Mary to come”. These verbs and the syntactic
constructions in which they are used are investigated in International Corpus
of English corpora for East African English, Hong Kong English, Indian English
and Singapore English. The Standard British English corpus is then used for
quantitative comparisons. Although the quantitative details do not always
conform to their predictions, the authors identify a number of alternative
constructions to to-complements in the New Englishes, such as the use of
finite clauses (“we allow that everyone will pass one”) and impersonal
it-paraphrases (“It’s believed over three hundred shells hit the city”), which
appear motivated by the tendency towards greater iconicity in the varieties

In “Syntactic and Variational Complexity in British and Ghanaian English:
Relative Clause Formation in the Written Parts of the International Corpus of
English” (pp. 218-242), Magnus Huber focuses on nativization of British
English relative clauses in Ghanaian English. His study is based on an
analysis of selected types of written texts from the International Corpus of
English. The major finding is that, while comparable in general outline, the
two varieties use the relativizers who, which, that and zero with differing
frequencies, pointing to a reinterpretation and subtle reorganization of the
input system, currently underway in the indigenized variety. The suggested
reason for this reorganization is the tendency, on the part of Ghanaian
English, toward a typologically unmarked system with regard to relative

Finally, three papers address the issue of complexity in English
interlanguages. In “Nothing Will Come of Nothing” (pp. 62-89), Terence Odlin
investigates preposition and article usage in written English of Finnish and
Swedish L1 learners. The article finds that native speakers of Finnish have
greater difficulties with both these categories due to a greater typological
distance between their L1 and the target language with respect to how the
notions of definiteness and spatial reference are expressed. The working
definition of complexity adopted in this paper relies on the notion of
descriptive complexity, broadly defined as the length of the shortest
description of the language module being acquired.

Lourdes Ortega (“Interlanguage Complexity: A Construct in Search of
Theoretical Renewal”, pp. 127-155), surveys existing methods for evaluating
interlanguage complexity in the field of SLA. Two complexity measures stand
out in frequency: the average number of words per sentence (or a comparable
unit of analysis, which varies with the individual researcher) and the average
number of finite clauses per sentence (or a comparable unit). After evaluating
the strengths and weaknesses of these metrics, Ortega calls for a renewal of
the theoretical construct of interlanguage complexity and a thorough review of
the current measurement techniques.

In “Acquisitional Complexity: What Defies Complete Acquisition in Second
Language Acquisition” (pp. 192-217), ZhaoHong Han and Wai Man Lew take the
view that it is necessary to distinguish different types of complexity in SLA
research. Two such types are discussed in the paper: developmental complexity,
commonly measured via production of progressively more complex syntactic
patterns, and acquisitional complexity, here understood as the possible
presence of non-acquirable aspects of language (“what is ultimately
non-acquirable”, p. 197). The paper suggests that while developmental
complexity can give researchers access to information about processes and
attainable products of L2 acquisition, acquisitional complexity is
idiosyncratic and ultimately depends on the individual. The bulk of the paper
is devoted to a discussion of acquisitional complexity with evidence drawn
from fossilizable structures, or structures which cease to evolve in learners’
grammars despite continuing exposure to input and opportunity for
communicative practice. The explanation for acquisitional difficulty offered
in the paper essentially centers on the cognitive aspects of transfer from the
learners’ L1 onto their L2 (“L1 thinking for L2 speaking”, p. 207).


This volume is a welcome addition to the growing body of work on linguistic
complexity, especially as it pertains to morphosyntactic complexity in contact
varieties of English. The editors have attempted to focus the discussion by
inviting the authors to address one or more of the following questions in
their contributions: how to assess complexity in the respective variety, which
type of complexity -- relative or absolute -- is of greater interest in the
author’s area of research, and the impact of adult language learning on
morphosyntactic simplification. As a result, the collection is more coherent
than it might otherwise have been, with many of the contributions including
explicit statements about what constitutes complexity in the respective field
of study and proposals relating to how it may be measured. By assembling
together these different views from three areas that have been frequently
discussed in complexity-related research -- creolistics, SLA and
indigenization studies -- the volume highlights the diversity of approaches to
linguistic complexity and the current lack of consensus about what constitutes
this notion. Most papers in the volume also succeed in highlighting the
theoretical relevance of SLA research, not only to the relatively recent
research program in intra- and inter-linguistic complexity but also to
creolistics and language evolution more generally. The lack of a common
approach to complexity does not detract from the readability of the individual
studies, but, on the contrary, serves as an invitation to future syntheses.
The volume will be of interest to all those interested in the notion of
linguistic complexity and in how it interacts with the relevant areas of


Dahl, Östen. 2004. The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Kusters, Wouter. 2003. Linguistic Complexity: The Influence of Social Change on Verbal Inflection. Leiden: Leiden University Press.

McWhorter, John. 2007. Language Interrupted: Signs of Non-Native Acquisition in Standard Language Grammars. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Miestamo, Matti, Kaius Sinnemäki and Fred Karlsson, eds. 2008. Language Complexity: Typology, Contact, Change. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

Sampson, Georrfrey, David Gil and Peter Trudgill, eds. 2009. Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Trudgill, Peter. 2011. Sociolinguistic Typology: Social Determinants of Linguistic Complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Natalie Operstein is an Assistant Professor of Linguistics at the Department
of English, Comparative Literature, and Linguistics of California State
University, Fullerton. Her main interests are historical and comparative
linguistics, phonology and language contact.

Amber Clontz is a Linguistics graduate student at California State University,
Fullerton. Her interests include the native speaker fallacy and language
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