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Review of  Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity

Reviewer: Mauro Giuffre
Book Title: Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity
Book Author: John H McWhorter
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Issue Number: 24.1461

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AUTHOR: McWhorter, John H.
TITLE: Linguistic simplicity and complexity
SUBTITLE: Why do languages undress?
SERIES TITLE: Language contact and bilingualism, Vol.1
PUBLISHER: De Gruyter Mouton
YEAR: 2011

Mauro Giuffrè, Dipartimento di Scienze Filologiche e Linguistiche, Italia-Sicilia-Università di Palermo

John McWhorter's Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity is the first volume in the series “Language contact and bilingualism” and the main topics are linguistic complexity, second language acquisition and languages in contact.

In McWhorter's earlier anthology, Defining Creole (2005), his view was that creole languages were definable not just socio-historically, but grammatically. In Linguistic Simplicity and Complexity, John McWhorter gathers articles he has written as responses to a wide range of creolists and linguists and, as noted in the Acknowledgements, he uses them as the basis for the nine chapters of this volume. They represent a considerable divergence in direction from his earlier works.

The volume is divided into three sections (Creole exceptionalism, Creole complexity and Exceptional language change elsewhere) and it opens with an important Introduction (“The creole litmus test and the NCSL challenge”) outlining the basic arguments.

The basic proposition is that the difference in complexity between grammars is determined significantly by the extent to which second-language acquisition has played a role in their histories. A corollary is that grammatical simplification can be as significant in languages born of second-language acquisition as grammatical mixture. That is, descriptions of creolization and other instances of language mixture as simple “feature selection” from the languages in a context are incomplete. According to McWhorter’s framework, the idea that any apparent simplification in a mixed language is always due to the selection of the least marked choice among the “features” available is similarly incomplete. There are cases, of which creoles are a type, in which the choices made to encode most features are less “marked” than any that the source languages offer. In other words, the guiding principle is simplification.

From McWhorter’s point of view, the framework for the analysis of creoles consists of three main planks: 1) the normal state of language is highly complex, to the extent that it can seem extreme to speakers of languages like English. The natural state of human language is extensive marking of fine semantic and syntactic distinctions, plus rampant allomorphy and irregularity (typical of languages such as those of the Caucasus and Native America); 2) languages significantly low in this kind of complexity compared to their sisters owe this condition to second-language acquisition in the past. This proposition seems to indicate that under ordinary conditions, languages lose a modest amount of complexity but maintain a basic level through the development of new complexities. In this perspective, languages that have not maintained this level have always been interrupted in their normal accumulation of complexity (e.g. English, Romance languages, Persian, Mandarin Chinese, and Indonesian -- McWhorter defines languages of this kind as Non-Hybrid Conventionalized Second-Language Varieties (NCSLs); 3) the languages which show the least complexity of all the languages in the world are creoles. The author considers creoles to be considerably less complex than older languages, including NCSLs.

McWhorter argues that creole languages are synchronically identifiable, even without recourse to information about their histories. That is, a creole is “a kind of language”, not just a sociohistorical term. McWhorter stipulates that a subset of languages showing the following three patterns were born recently from pidgins: 1) phonological: little or no use of tone to distinguish monosyllables or grammatical categories; 2) morphosyntactic: little or no inflectional morphology; 3) semantic: few or no non-compositional combinations of derivational markers and roots. Following this perspective, the author demonstrates that the Creole Prototype constitutes a litmus test for creolization, with an examination of an isolating language that has not been considered a creole under any other definition. This is a kind of language that could be seen as suggesting that even older languages can wend into a creole-like typology, and that there is therefore properly not a synchronic essence that is limited only to creole languages. The whole volume is intended as a demonstration of these theoretical principles.

The first section, Creole exceptionalism, asks whether creolists have been able to disprove that creole languages harbor evidence of their birth as pidgins. In the three chapters of the first section, he argues that they have not and attempts to show that his Prototype and Complexity hypotheses have not yet been disconfirmed by others scholars in their substance.

Chapter One reviews the Prototype hypothesis, as put forth in McWhorter (2005: 9-37). The Prototype hypothesis is here recast to refute the widely-held opinion that a Creole is a mixture of two or more languages and that the result of an unbroken grammar-internal development with merely moderate abbreviations deriving from adult second-language acquisition. By recasting the Prototype hypothesis McWhorter affirms that a natural language is a creole (i.e. recently born from a pidgin) if it has: a) morphologically, little or no inflectional affixation, and among unbound inflectional markers, no contextual inflection, or inherent inflection of the paradigmatically complex sort; b) phonologically, little or no distinction of monosyllabic lexical items or morphosyntactic distinctions via tone or register, and without any typologically unusual proliferation of vowels; c) semantically, few or no noncompositional combinations of nonreduplicative derivational morphemes with roots. In his opinion, creoles are languages which emerged from structurally reduced pidgins, and bear these hallmarks of that origin in their current structural makeup.

Chapter Two shows that the nature of creolization cannot be described in binary terms. The author claims that creoles should be analyzed as a whole and that the degree of complexity has to be considered generally. Creoles, as natural languages, have phonology and morphology, even if those are less elaborate than those of older languages. This point of view suggests that creoles are not just hybrids, but that they are human languages that were reborn only a few centuries ago.

Chapter Three contains a “scientific standoff” with Ansaldo, Matthews and Lim’s Deconstructing Creole (2007), which denies that the creoles are identifiable as a synchronic class. In McWhorter’s opinion Deconstructing Creole paradoxically seems to contain more arguments in favor of the exceptionalist conception of creoles than against it and reaches the goal of demonstrating the unexpected conclusion that creoles are the product of grammatical deconstruction.

The second section (Creole Complexity) contains three chapters, intended to demonstrate that creole exceptionalism is not based on ignorance of grammar. McWhorter examines three grammatical features of Saramaccan (spoken in the Surinamese rain forest, with a largely English and Portuguese lexicon). The intention is to show that it is not sufficient, when demonstrating that a creole “has complexity”, to simply indicate that its determiners have some conditioned allomorphs, that it has derivational processes, or that its phonology requires rule ordering. The author finds that some features manifest a more complex rendition of a given construction or semantic concept than in English or related languages.

Chapter Four expounds the thesis that complexity in creoles grows over time from an original state. The growth process has occurred over a few centuries rather than millennia and so the complexities in creoles are not maximally elaborated in comparison to equivalent features in ‘older’ languages. The Saramaccan data in this chapter support this view, taking into account some of the new information marking in Saramaccan. This process surpasses in overspecification any overt, regularized mechanism in any Western European language.

The fifth chapter is a re-elaboration of McWhorter (2005: 102-41), where he discussed creole grammar as a whole. Here he examines two serial verb constructions encoding movement in the Saramaccan creole and tries to shed light on the following themes: creoles’ relative complexity compared to older languages and the possible inadequate description of the grammar of creoles. McWhorter shows that a construction typically lumped into a list of “serial verb constructions” in Surinam creole is actually at the heart of a more complex system for indicating direction than in Western European languages, where they are conditioned according to transitivity.

In Chapter Six McWhorter supports his scenario for creole genesis, that they were born as structurally reduced pidginized varieties, eventually expanding into new natural languages. Analyzing the full range of allomorphy of the Saramaccan copula, he suggests that grammatical complexity consists of a great deal more than inflectional affixation and its consequences. The Saramaccan creole has different levels of complexity in comparison to analytic languages, not just to Western European languages. The bipartite Saramaccan copula scenario occurred as the result of explainable but unpredictable processes of change. Saramaccan speakers have not processed the language as a variety of any European language, and thus its development of copulas is not couched in a dynamic relationship with a high superstratal language.

Finally the third section (Exceptional language change elsewhere) is composed by 3 chapters and represents extensions of the Author’s position on language contact and simplification to languages other than creoles. “Creole exceptionalism is but one component of a framework devoted not to the singling out of creoles for suspect or peculiar reasons, but of analyzing the difference between human language as it presumably was for the most of humans’ existence, as opposed to the way many languages are now as the result of population movements and second-language acquisition.” (McWhorter, 2011: 203).

Chapter Seven is adapted from McWhorter (2008), with a reconceived text flow, additional data and abridgment. This chapter was originally written in response to Gil (2001), whose article constituted the most challenging reply to creole exceptionalism. Gil showed that Riau Indonesian was proof that a language could wend into this “prototypical” state by chance. McWhorter (2008) concluded that Riau Indonesian is a product of extensive adult acquisition, and therefore supported the Creole Prototype hypothesis. Gil noted that the colloquial Indonesian languages were almost all radically less complex than the standard. Given that Indonesian has been used as much if not more as a second language than as a first language for over two millennia, McWhorter thinks that it would be almost bizarre if the nature of these colloquial dialects was not in some way related to this fact. In seeking to make this case for dialects like Riau Indonesian, the author surveyed some Austronesian languages to confirm his hunch that there were no other languages in the family that had drifted mysteriously into analyticity, but his hunch was wrong. So McWhorter’s suggestion is that there must be something particular about the social histories of the Austronesian languages. These languages therefore present a challenge to the Creole Prototype hypothesis.

Chapter Eight outlines the author’s conclusion concerning the languages of Flores and Timor; according to him they can be accommodated within his theoretical proposal. The lexicon of these languages presents some extremely unusual aspects, considered evidence of a massive interruption that impacted adult learners.

Chapter Nine is an analysis of English and makes the case that English is even less “normal” than specialists in its history have typically supposed. In the author’s opinion English grammar was deeply impacted by Celtic, so that depending on where one draws the proverbial line, it could be seen as both moderately simplified as well as moderately mixed. The Celtic Hypothesis on English diachrony would appear to be at a tipping point. Chapter Nine is intended as a spur for further study. As language change goes, the path taken by English, like that of creoles, has been exceptional because of the vast streamlining and hybridization of its grammar.

The author assigns himself the task of testing the validity of his basic proposal, which is that “the difference in complexity between languages’ grammars is determined significantly by the extent to which second-language acquisition has played a role in their histories”. Each chapter presents a series of “technical” aspects related to observations that the author links to the individual languages under consideration. On that front, the author’s prose is passionate and “appealing”, much more than a standard scientific book, and the method of investigation of the individual issues covered in the chapters of the book is rigorous and carefully applied. I reserve judgment on the conclusions reached in the individual sections to specialists in creoles, second language acquisition and linguistic contact. I leave to them the value judgments of a book that for me was interesting to read, one I practically devoured.

Although they are the target audience of this publication, the title -- Linguistic simplicity and complexity -- aims to reach an audience of scholars of general linguistics. I belong to this group, with a perspective linked more to the traditional European study of classical philology. From that perspective I add a few observations on the project.

First, the use of concepts like “linguistic simplicity” and “complexity” seems to have a certain pre-scientific quality (i.e. unscientific or unproven prejudice). I see in his categorization an implicit gradation of value (simple = of little value; complex = not possessing a general harmony; intermediate = good, balanced), which becomes strange when we consider that in the category of the good and balanced he places English and the ‘normal’ Indo-European languages (all of which have, however, an aurea mediocritas). I detect the scent of “Eurocentrism”.

Second, the author points out that all linguists “are comfortable with the basic association between second language acquisition and analyticity as a tendency. Fewer, however, are comfortable assigning the general typology of a language to widespread second-language acquisition, in view of the fact that affixes can erode over time and there is, certainly, a chance element in complexity differentials between languages.” Though I belong to that smaller group -- those who can agree to link the general type of a language to its widespread acquisition as a second language -- I cannot accept that the analysis of creoles is reduced and confined to the mere perspective of synchronic analysis, with a general disregard for historical and social factors (which seem crucial for creoles in particular). Such an analysis seems to underestimate certain factors in order to insist on the construction of an analytical scheme composed of various boxes.

Third, the author’s programmatic desire to “work towards a typology of language contact with not only descriptive but deductive power” causes me serious discomfort. In linguistics there is no predictive ability that could be refined to the point of eliminating with a single stroke of a pen the need to investigate phenomena such as creolization from a complex perspective, one which integrates synchrony and diachrony and makes it possible to balance historical and typological factors. Indeed we must recognize that Romance, Germanic and classical linguistics and their respective 1,500, 1,000 and 3,000 years of scholarly tradition have taught us that this complex perspective is absolutely essential.

Ansaldo, Umberto – Matthews, Stephen – Lim, Lisa (eds.) 2007 Deconstructing Creole. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Gil, David 2001 Creoles, Complexity, and Riau Indonesian. Linguistic Typology 2/3: 325-71.

McWhorter, John 2005 Defining Creole. New York: Oxford University Press.

McWhorter, John 2008 Why does a language undress?: strange cases of Indonesia. In Miestamo, Matti - Sinnemäki, Kaius - Karlsson, Fred (eds.) 2008 Language Complexity: Typology, Contact, Change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Singler, John 2006 Children and creole genesis. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages 21: 157-73.

Mauro Giuffré is a post-doc in Linguistics at the University of Palermo. He holds a PhD in General Linguistics, with a dissertation titled Text Linguistics and Cognitive Sciences: the proceduralism of Dressler and De Beaugrande. His main research interests concern the relationship between classical studies (philology and ancient western European languages, such as Latin and Greek) and theoretical work in text linguistics; his scientific production is devoted to connecting theoretical linguistics with classical studies. He is the editor of STUDIES IN SEMIOTIC TEXTOLOGY IN HONOUR OF JANOS S. PETÖFI (2011, Supplement 1) (preview in of Sprachtheorie und germanistische Linguistik (, directed by András Kertész.