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Review of Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable
EDITORS: Geoffrey Sampson, David Gil, and Peter Trudgill TITLE: Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable SERIES: Studies in the Evolution of Language 13 PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2009
Connie de Vos, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
This book is the end-result of a workshop held at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig in April 2007. Although the workshop set out to dispute the linguistic axiom that all languages are equally complex, the editors mention in the final chapter (''Envoi'') that the meeting attracted only those who are actively challenging that view. The book provides a rich view on the range of definitions, linguistic phenomena, and methods concerning the issue of linguistic complexity. Methods vary from statistical analyses of large sets of spontaneous conversations to the detailed analysis of a single creole language. Most strikingly, the papers in this book show that linguistic complexity may vary between languages, within and across speakers of a language, over time at the individual level (even past puberty) and language level. Multiple hypotheses are put forward on the kinds of factors which may impact language complexity. The papers in this book give a representative overview of such factors: individual factors, and literacy, but also sociolinguistic factors such as language contact, percentage of L2 learners, time depth, and community size.
The first paper by Geoffrey Sampson explains why the axiom that all languages are equally complex has been so attractive to various schools of linguistics, and how new empirical work challenges it. Central to the challenge based on linguistic data is to disprove a mechanism of trade-off between various domains of linguistic structure which would make languages equally complex in the end.
David Gil (chapter 2) argues that even the least complex languages are functionally sufficient for the most complicated tasks; that language complexity evolves from system-internal processes, rather than in response to a functional need.
Walter Bisang's paper argues that while some languages may exhibit complexity on the morphosyntactic level, this is compensated for through pragmatic inference in languages with less morphosyntactic marking (e.g. languages of South-East Asia). According to Bisang, this should be considered as hidden complexity.
In chapter 4, Östen Dahl compares the grammars of Elfdalian and Swedish - two closely related languages - with respect to phonological, morphological, and syntactic complexity. Although there have long been presumed to be trade-offs between domains of linguistic structure such that overall language complexity is equal, Dahl's data show that there is no apparent trade-off.
In chapter 5, Benedikt Szmrecsanyi and Bernd Kortmann present a frequency-based analysis of English used spontaneously in different societies: English spoken as a native language by high-contact and low contact communities, English spoken as a second language, and English-based pidgins and creoles. Linguistic complexity is negatively correlated with contact.
In chapter 6, Matti Miestamo argues for the use of Greenbergian implicational hierarchies in determining whether there are trade-offs between linguistic domains which would support an equi-complexity hypothesis. His stratified sample of languages shows that trade-offs do not exist between agreement and case hierarchies, but there is significant trade-off between the complexities of copular and verbal marking in stative predicates. Unfortunately, the domains for which implicational hierarchies exist do not exhaustively describe the linguistic complexity of any particular language, which limits the use of implicational hierarchies for research on complexity.
Peter Trudgill (chapter 7) argues that societal type influences linguistic structure such that more contact, looser networks, and a larger community result in simplification (i.e. regularization, transparency, reduction of redundancy) because of L2 learner preferences.
In chapter 8, Johanna Nichols argues in favor of sociolinguistic factors influencing language structure based on the grammars of sixty-eight languages. However, she also points out there are many remaining questions on how these factors play out in combination, and over time. Population size for instance may fluctuate rapidly, while the structural properties of the language may need time to adjust.
Kaius Sinnemäki (chapter 9) shows an impact of population size on core argument marking such that larger languages are more likely to have only a single strategy to distinguish 'who did what to whom', while smaller languages may deviate more easily from this one-meaning-one-form principle.
In chapter 10 John McWhorter shows how the creole language Saramaccan has developed a new information marker, which cannot be traced back to the source language.
Utz Maas (chapter 11) explains how literacy increases language complexity since a register for usage is added with respect to oral languages.
Ngoni Chipere's work (chapter 12) discusses individual differences in the processing of complex linguistic structures. Training studies indicate that these differences are the result of varying grammatical competence rather than differences in working memory.
In chapter 13 Fred Karlsson discusses the origin and maintenance of clausal embedding complexity in Standard Average European languages under the influence of Latin writing.
In chapter 14 Ljiljana Progovac argues for the gradual evolution of syntax based on the structure of present-day grammar.
In addition to the papers, chapter 15 presents an email-based interview by Geoffrey Sampson with Dan Everett: the linguist whose controversial work involves Pirahã, one of the least complex languages known to date. According to Everett, the relatively simple language Pirahã fits the cultural needs of the Pirahã people.
In chapter 16 Eugénie Stapert looks at the complexity of mental verb constructions in both Pirahã and English language acquisition.
Guy Deutscher (chapter 17) addresses theoretical and practical problems with measuring complexity.
Chapter 18, by John A. Hawkins, describes various efficiency factors which optimize communication and argues for comparing grammars with respect to efficiency rather than complexity.
Chapter 19 is a concluding chapter by the editors.
An axiom challenged Geoffrey Sampson starts off by questioning why the axiom of equal complexity across languages has dominated linguistics for most of the twentieth century. For Chomskyan linguists, equal complexity follows naturally from the hypothesis of Universal Grammar. That is, since Universal Grammar is the same across the globe and innate to all peoples each language has an equal amount of structural complexity. There is thus an a priori reason why linguistic complexity should exist as a constant. The descriptivist's soul is a bit more complicated. The main reason why they have been supportive of the constant complexity axiom seems an ethical one: ''all men are brothers''. Note that this line of thinking invokes in fact another assumption, namely that linguistic complexity may impact on cognitive capacity or degree of civilization which is subsequently seen as a (moral) judgment. Consequently, linguists in the descriptivist tradition have been in favor of the idea that simplicity in one domain of linguistic organization makes up for complexity in another domain of linguistic structure. These trade-offs cause language complexity to be in a state of equilibrium. Sampson's contribution is a valuable reflection on a changing linguistic paradigm.
Variation in Language complexity Challenges to the idea of equal complexity across languages come from various empirical works. First, there are typological descriptions of fully functional, non-creole languages which nevertheless exhibit little complexity in any overt domain. This includes work by David Gil on Riau Indonesian (see also chapter 2), as well as Dan Everett's work on Pirahã (see the interview in chapter 15). Chapters 2, 3, 4, 6, and 8 show that a trade-off of complexity between overtly marked linguistic domains is not generally supported by the data. What is more, diachronic studies have shown that languages may develop more syntactic complexity over time (see for example chapters 11, 13, and 14).
In contrast to the above studies that focus on complexity as absolute, system complexity, the chapters by Szmrecsanyi & Kortmann (chapter 5), Peter Trudgill (chapter 7), and Kaius Sinnemäki (chapter 9) look at complexity from an L2 learners' perspective. They thus define complexity as degree of difficulty of acquisition. These studies show that societal variables such as community size, network density and amount of contact may influence a language's structure. Comprehension studies by Ngoni Chipere (see chapter 12) show that there are individual differences within a community in the processing of complex sentences. Surprisingly, these studies show that L2 learners are in fact more accurate than native speakers in such cases. In fact, Chipere's studies do not only challenge the idea of constant linguistic complexity across individuals, but at the same time they make one question the robustness of the Critical Period in the syntactic domain.
Evaluation This book presents papers by leading researchers in the field of linguistic complexity, most of whom have published monographs or edited volumes on the topic before. (See for instance Dahl 2004; Miestamo, Sinnemäki & Karlsson 2008; Trudgill forthcoming.) This edited volume can therefore serve as a first introduction to the issue of language complexity, but also as an update for those who are more familiar with the research. In general, the papers are well-written and although definitions vary widely, they are made explicit in each chapter. In fact, the variety of ways in which linguistic complexity is investigated makes the case against equal complexity across languages much more compelling than any of the individual work would by itself.
The question whether linguistic complexity (language) may be a gradual phenomenon also plays a role in sign linguistics. For instance, home sign - communication by deaf children without a conventional language model - displays evidence of linguistic structure (Goldin-Meadow 2003). Moreover, the comparison of different cohorts of a well-documented, young signed language in Nicaragua showed linguistic conventionalisation patterns over just a few decades (Senghas, Kita, & Ozyurek 2004). Recently, so-called village sign languages - young signed languages of relatively isolated, small communities with a high percentage of hearing non-native signers - are receiving more attention in sign linguistics (Meir, Sandler, Padden, & Aronoff in press). The present book, however, contains neither work nor references to research on signed languages. This is a pity, especially because many of these languages' histories can be traced. As such village sign languages would form a perfect testing ground for theories which implicate sociolinguistic factors in the development of language complexity.
Although Sampson et al.'s edited book was published in a series called Studies on the Evolution of Language, and the book title makes reference to evolution, there are virtually no remarks on what makes language change like Darwinian evolution, or how the data presented in this book would contribute to research on the emergence and evolution of language. I feel this is a missed opportunity. The idea of varying complexity has far-reaching consequences for biologists or geneticists interested in the phenomenon of the emergence and evolution of language in our species. It changes our view on what the human linguistic phenotype really looks like. In fact, it may well be that the tremendous flexibility of what languages can be like makes human communication unique.
Dahl, Ö. (2004). The growth and maintenance of linguistic complexity. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Goldin-Meadow, S. (2003). The resilience of language. What gesture creation in deaf children can tell us about how all children learn language. New York, NY: Psychology Press.
Meir, I., Sandler, W., Padden, C., & Aronoff, M. (in press). Emerging Sign Languages. In M. Marschark & P. E. Spencer (Eds.), Oxford Handbook of Deaf Studies, Language and Education, Volume 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Miestamo, M., Sinnemäki, K., & Karlsson, F. (Eds.). (2008). Language complexity: typology, contact, change. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Senghas, A., Kita, S., & Ozyurek, A. (2004). Children creating core properties of language: Evidence from an emerging sign language in Nicaragua. Science, 305(5691), 1779-1782.
Trudgill, P. (forthcoming). Language in contact and isolation: sociolinguistic typology and linguistic complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Connie de Vos is a PhD candidate of the Language & Cognition group at the
Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. She received her MA in
Linguistics at Radboud University, with a thesis on the interaction of
affective and linguistic functions of eyebrows in Sign Language of the
Netherlands. Currently, she is writing a dissertation on Kata Kolok, a
village-based sign language of North-Bali. Her work focuses on pointing,
the use of sign space to talk about spatial relations, and processes of