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Review of  Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable

Reviewer: Grover M. Hudson
Book Title: Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable
Book Author: Geoffrey Sampson David Gil Peter Trudgill
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Cognitive Science
Anthropological Linguistics
Issue Number: 21.241

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[review received 18 August, 2009]

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

Grover Hudson, Department of Linguistics and Germanic, Slavic, Asian and African
Languages, Michigan State University

''This book is the outcome of a workshop held at the Max Planck Institute for
Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, in April 2007 ... convened in response to
the fairly sudden emergence, in many diverse quarters internationally, of
scepticism about a longstanding linguistic axiom - that all languages and
language varieties are similar in complexity, and have been so at all times in
the past'' (vii). Important work 'in many diverse quarters' to which authors here
respond includes Givón 1979, Hawkins and Gell-Mann, eds. 1992, Trudgill 1998,
Deutscher 2000, McWhorter 2001, Kusters 2003, Dahl 2004, Everett 2005, and
Miestamo et al., eds. 2008.


There are nineteen chapters, as follows.

1. ''A linguistic axiom challenged'' by Geoffrey Sampson is an overview of the
book-title claim. The opposite claim is more widely held, according to Sampson,
e.g. Hockett (1958: 180): ''impressionistically, it would seem that the total
grammatical complexity of any language, counting both morphology and syntax, is
about the same as that of any other. This is not surprising, since all languages
have about equally complex jobs to do, and what is not done morphologically has
to be done syntactically.'' As a counterexample to the claim of equal complexity,
Sampson raises the extraordinarily elaborate morphology of the Caucasian
language Archi, described by Kibrik (1998). Sampson quotes Jackendoff (1993: 32)
that ''the earliest written documents already display the full expressive variety
and grammatical complexity of modern languages.'' He reviews recent work which
begins to challenge the traditional idea, including McWhorter (2001) that
creoles are characterized by lesser complexity than other languages, and Everett
(2005) that Pirahã is a language without (among other things) recursion.

2. ''How much grammar does it take to sail a boat?'' by David Gil continues his
argument that Rau Indonesian represents a ''relative IMA
(isolating-monocategorical-associational) language,'' having isolating
morphology, few if any part-of-speech categories, and little more than pragmatic
interpretation of word associations (22). The chapter title relates to the
hypothesis that early-human colonizers of Austronesia had no more than an IMA to
build and sail the boats they needed to reach their islands. According to Gil,
''pure IMA Language is endowed with substantial expressive power'' (29), and the
complexity of other languages is largely superfluous anyway, as ''the fact
remains that language is hugely disfunctional. Just think of all the things that
it would be wonderful to be able to say but for which no language comes remotely
near to providing the necessary expressive tools'' (32).

3. ''On the evolution of complexity: sometimes less is more in East and mainland
Southeast Asia'' by Walter Bisang argues that absence of complexity in the usual
sense may result in 'hidden complexity': increased need for inference. ''Hidden
complexity reflects economy: the structure of the language does not force the
speaker to use a certain grammatical category if it can be inferred from
context'' (34). Gil's IMA languages ''are not necessarily simple''; ''their overt
structural simplicity may mask hidden complexity'' (35). Most of the chapter is
exemplification of southeast Asian language ''markers [that] have a wide range of
meaning,'' and ''utterances that may represent a number of different
constructions'' (38).

4. ''Testing the assumption of complexity invariance: the case of Elfdalian and
Swedish'' by Östen Dahl compares the two ''North Germanic languages ... to
identify the points at which the languages differ in complexity and see whether
these differences are compensated for elsewhere in the grammar'' (50). Elfdalian
is ''an endangered vernacular spoken by about 3000 persons ... not mutually
intelligible'' with Swedish. Dahl distinguishes 'absolute' and 'agent-related'
complexity. Absolute complexity of an object ''is related to the amount of
information needed to recreate or specify it'' or ''the length of the shortest
possible complete description of it'' (50); he is unconcerned with 'agent-related
complexity', which is learners' ''difficulty in learning, producing, and
understanding the language'' (51). According to his comparisons, ''it is in fact
reasonable to assume that Elfdalian has a more complex grammar than Swedish'' (63).

5. ''Between simplification and complexification: non-standard varieties of
English around the world'' by Benedikt Szmrecsanyi and Bernd Kortmann is an
''endeavour to analyse and interpret language-internal variation in English in
terms of varying complexity and simplicity levels'' (64). They employ four
comparisons (three of morphological complexity plus 'L2 acquisition difficulty')
on four varieties of English: 'high-contact' vernacular Australian,
'low-contact' vernacular East Anglian, English-based pidgin/creole Tok Pisin,
and L2 English of Hong Kong. They conclude that ''variety type is a powerful
predictor of complexity variance in varieties of English around the world ...
Low-contact, traditional L1 vernaculars are on almost every count ... more
complex than high-contact L1 varieties'' (76).

6. ''Implicational hierarchies and grammatical complexity'' by Matti Miestamo
''examines the usability of Greenbergian implicational hierarchies ... in
cross-linguistic research on language complexity ... [T]he higher a language on
a given hierarchy'' (for example Trial>Dual>Plural>Singular) ''the more complex
its grammar in that respect'' (80). ''The study is based on a sample of 50
languages'' distributed geographically and genetically (84) with regard to their
fulfillment of the opposite hierarchies of 'agreement' (Sub/Abs < Obj/Erg < Obl)
and 'case' (Sub/Abs > Obj/Erg > Obl) (88). (That is, for the agreement
hierarchy, agreement with obliques implies agreement with objects or ergatives
which implies agreement with subjects or absolutives.) Although ''correlations
are to be expected between the agreement and case hierarchies,'' Miestamo found
''no significant correlation, positive or negative'' (95).

7. ''Sociolinguistic typology and complexification'' by Peter Trudgill reviews his
work since 1983 arguing that languages differ in complexity according to (1)
amount of other-language contact (less contact, more complexity - as argued in
ch. 5); (2) density of social networks (greater density, more complexity); and
(3) number of speakers (fewer speakers, more complexity - as argued in ch. 9).
He considers the three factors independent if related, but believes that
''widespread adult-only language contact is ... a mainly modern phenomenon
associated with the last 2,000 years,'' so ''the dominant standard modern
languages in the world today are likely to be seriously atypical of how
languages have been for nearly all of human history'' (109).

8. ''Linguistic complexity: a comprehensive definition and survey'' by Johanna
Nichols is ''a first step'' toward a ''cross-linguistic survey of complexity
levels'', ''giving a comprehensive definition of complexity that should make it
possible to draw grammatical samples, and doing a large enough cross-linguistic
survey of enough parts of grammar to indicate whether the assumption of equal
complexity appears viable'' (111). Nichols' survey found ''no significant negative
correlations between different components of grammar,'' but ''a significant
positive correlation between complexity of syntax and complexity of
[morphological] synthesis,'' [and] ''it is negative correlations that support the
hypothesis of equal complexity'' (119). Nor did Nichols find evidence for ''a
preferred complexity level or trade-off between complexity levels of different
components of grammar'' (120).

9. ''Complexity in core argument marking and population size'' by Kaius Sinnemäki
asks ''whether core argument marking shows complexity varying with speech
community size,'' and ''test[s] this relationship statistically with a sample of
fifty languages. Complexity is measured as violations of distinctiveness and
economy, the two sides of the principle of one meaning-one form'' (126; that is,
one meaning should have one form and one form, one meaning). Sinnemäki notes
research by Hay and Bauer (2007), who ''tested the relationship between phoneme
inventory size and speech community size in 216 languages, and arrived at a
statistically very significant positive correlation'' (128). He hypothesizes that
''languages spoken by small speech communities are likely to violate the
principle ... by either redundant or insufficient morphosyntactic marking of
core arguments'' but ''languages spoken by large speech communities are likely to
adhere to the principle'' (131), and finds ''rather strong support for both
hypotheses'' (138), with the exception that many large 'Old World' languages of
Eurasia, Africa, and SE Asia tolerate violations of economy ('redundancy':
two(+) forms per meaning).

10. ''Oh nɔ́ɔ!: a bewilderingly multifunctional Saramaccan word teaches us how a
creole language develops complexity'' by John McWhorter argues that the second
word of the title, which comes from 'no more', is evolving as a focus (new
information) morpheme. He believes ''the discussion will also serve as a
corrective to a tendency in studies of grammatical complexity - in creoles and
beyond - to conceive of complexity as essentially a shorthand for inflectional
morphology'' (142).

11. ''Orality versus literacy as a dimension of complexity'' by Utz Maas argues
that European vernacular languages evolved complexity in becoming literate. In
the example of an extract from a bilingual Latin/German contract of 1251, ''the
Latin text does not cause any problems of interpretation'' (167), but the
equivalent German text ''will not have been comprehensible to a contemporary
reader ... It took a long time to elaborate the vernacular languages so that
they could articulate complex literate texts, and Latin served as the model''
(169). Developing ''language that allows one to articulate all registers ...
makes the language more complex, compared to what it would be if it could only
articulate the intimate register - but it makes linguistic competence less
complex than in cases where different languages are needed for the different
registers. Linguistic complexity is the price for linguistic integration of
different registers'' (172).

12. ''Individual differences in processing complex grammatical structures'' by
Ngoni Chipere asserts ''the ... widespread assumption'' (of questionable relevance
to the argument of this book) ''that all native speakers possess a uniform
underlying competence to process complex grammatical structures,'' and concludes
''this assumption is false'' (178). He mentions research by Miller and Isard
(1964), who ''discovered that some individuals could process sentences with at
most one level of self-embedding, whereas other individuals could process
sentences with two levels of self-embedding'' (183). In Chipere's research 'high
academic ability' students perform better than 'low academic ability' students
in sentence recall and comprehension. ''Memory training caused increases in
recall...but not in comprehension, [but] comprehension training...caused
increases in both comprehension and recall,'' which he attributes to ''differences
in grammatical competence and not ... differences in working memory''
(performance) (189).

13. ''Origin and maintenance of clausal embedding complexity'' by Fred Karlsson
considers constraints on ''possibilities of repeatedly embedding subordinate
clauses in various positions in their main clauses,'' and he ''inquires whether
[the constraints] have been stable and fluctuating over time'' (192). ''The major
expository genre'' before writing, oral narrative, ''has been shown to be
aggregative and paratactic rather than subordinating'' (195). Karlsson refers to
research of Givón (1979; see now Givón and Shibatani 2009) that ''more complex
forms of (especially finite) clausal embedding arose [in languages] as part of
large-scale grammaticalization, along with the advent of written language and
the consequent gradual conventionalization of written registers'' (201). ''The
upper limits of clausal embedding complexity,'' however, ''have remained the same
since the advent of written language'' (202).

14. ''Layering of grammar: vestiges of protosyntax in present-day languages'' by
Liliana Progovac has as ''the first goal ... to demonstrate that Root Small
Clause ... syntax is measurably simpler than sentential TP syntax'' (212). A Root
Small Clause is such as 'Him retire?', 'Me first!', and 'Problem solved'. She
considers these to lack a ''Tense Phrase (TP), but also Move and structural
(nominative) case, which are associated with TP'' (212). A second argument is
that ''Root SCs (and exocentric compounds), which approximate this rudimentary
grammar, can be seen as living fossils of a protosyntactic stage in language
evolution''; this Progovac finds ''consistent with the possibility that there
exist languages spoken today which are characterized by a version of Root SC
syntax, and such languages may include'' Riau Indonesian and Pirahã (212).

15. ''An interview with Dan Everett'' by Geoffrey Sampson replaces Everett's talk
at the workshop. The editors thought the interview ''might advance our
understanding of the overall workshop topic better'' by ''challenging Everett on
some of the points where linguists have felt sceptical'' (213). According to
Everett, the Amazonian Pirahã ''have independently discovered the usefulness of
living one day at a time'' and correspondingly have simple language lacking
''recursion, number, numerals, and counting'' (213). Everett supposes the language
to represent an ''earlier stage of language evolution,'' in which ''parataxis and
adjunction precede embedding'' (215). Sampson presses Everett on these points of
controversy concerning both linguistic and cultural relativity. For the
theoretical linguistic issues, see now Everett 2009.

16. ''Universals in language or cognition? Evidence from English language
acquisition and from Pirahã'' by Eugénie Stapert ''compare[s] mental verb
constructions in English and Pirahã ... [T]he syntax of the sentences at issue
seems very different at first sight. However, I shall argue that the difference
is perhaps not as profound as it seems... English mental verb constructions need
not be analysed as complex structures in young children's speech ... which in
many respects is similar to what we find in Pirahã'' (230-1). If Pirahã lacks
recursion, how does it express the sentential complements of 'mental verbs' like
'think', 'notice', and 'doubt', which seem to be recursive clauses? Referring to
research of Diessel and Tomasello (2001), Stapert observes that mental verbs are
paralleled in meaning and use by adverbs like 'apparently' (='I think'),
'clearly' ('I notice'), 'maybe' ('I doubt'); child acquirers of English
similarly understand and structure their early mental verbs (239).

17. '''Overall complexity': a wild goose chase'' by Guy Deutscher counters two
basic arguments for the claim that all languages are equally complex ('ALEC').
The 'minimum argument' that linguistic complexity equalizes across language
according to their equal (minimal) amount of work he rejects claiming that ''a
great deal of complexity is redundant historical baggage'' (245). The ''maximum
argument'' that linguistic complexity ''reaches an upper limit ... due either to
the limitation of transmission between generations (learnability), or to the
brain's capacity to process'' he denies, asserting ''the widespread phenomenon of
bilingualism and multilingualism,'' which ''proves that individual languages do
not even begin to exhaust the brain's capacity to learn and process language ...
ALEC implies that 'overall complexity' of a language is a meaningful concept
that can be non-arbitrarily quantified,'' at best, however, ''the 'overall
complexity' of a language can be understood as a vector ... of values'' (246-7).
But such vector of values ''will not be amenable to summation, since the parts to
be counted in the different subdomains will be of very different natures'' (249).

18. ''An efficiency theory of complexity and related phenomena'' by John A.
Hawkins argues that ''metrics of complexity'' should be ''embedded in a larger
theory of efficiency...: communication is efficient when [a] message ... is
delivered ... in rapid time and with minimal processing effort'' (253). Grammar
is not autonomous of performance, as ''widely held in generative theorizing,'' but
deeply interconnected with it, so that ''comparing grammars in terms of
efficiency in communication as defined ... enables us to model more of the
factors that ultimately determine the preferences of performance and grammar, in
addition to complexity itself'' (267).

19. In ''Envoi,'' the short final chapter, the editors identify three 'general
themes' of the book: authors are ''pushing at an open door'' (268); syntax and
morphology are central but syntax particularly as a consequence of ''the
Chomskyan revolution,'' to which ''our contributors are not very sympathetic''
(270); and ''there is little reason to expect the real world to contain barriers
between'' language and culture (271).


The book is an engaging if unsatisfying argument for the hypothesis of language
complexity as an evolving variable. Clearly needed is a better-shared
understanding of what 'language complexity' is. Comrie (1992: 210) suggested
that this be thought of as what language evolution adds (for example
morphophonemic alternation and suppletion). Several authors here offer or allude
to such understanding, so perhaps this with other recent work on 'complexity'
might be taken with work on language evolution (some of which challenges the
traditional dogma that ancient and modern languages do not significantly differ)
as groping toward a new language typology based on progress along
grammaticalization paths, consistent with the plea of Bybee (2006: 194) ''for the
necessity of taking diachrony into account in the formulations of language
universals ... language theory must look beyond synchronic generalizations about
particular language states to the formational mechanisms that bring linguistic
structure into being.''


Bybee, Joan (2006). Language change and universals, Language Universals, Ricardo
Mairal and Juana Gil, eds., 179-194. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Comrie, Bernard (1992). Before complexity, in Hawkins and Gell-Mann, eds., 193-211.
Dahl, Östen (2004). The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity.
Amsterdam & Philadelphia: Benjamins.
Deutscher, Guy (2000). Syntactic Change in Akkadian: the Evolution of Sentential
Complementation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Diessel, Holger and Michael Tomasello (2001). The acquisition of finite
complement clauses in English: a usage-based approach to the development of
grammatical constructions. Cognitive Linguistics 12.97-141.
Everett, Daniel L. (2005). Cultural constraints on grammar and cognition in
Pirahã: another look at the design features of human language. Current
Anthropology 76.621-46.
Everett, Daniel L. (2009). Cultural culture and grammar in Pirahã: a response to
some criticisms. Language 85.405-442.
Givón, Talmy (1979). On Understanding Grammar. New York: Academic Press.
Givón, T. and Masayoshi Shibatani (2009). Syntactic Complexity: Diachrony,
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Hay, Jennifer and Laurie Bauer (2007). Phoneme inventory size and population
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Hockett, Charles F. (1958). A Course in Modern Linguistics. New York: Macmillan.
Jackendoff, Ray (1993). Patterns in the Mind: Language and Human Nature. New
York: Basic Books.
Kibrik, Aleksandr (1998). Archi (Caucasian - Daghestanian), The Handbook of
Morphology, Andrew Spencer and Arnold M. Zwicky, eds., 455-476. Oxford, UK:
Kusters, Wouter (2003). Linguistic Complexity: the Influence of Social Change on
Verbal Inflection. Utrecht: Netherlands Graduate School of Linguistics.
McWhorter, John H. (2001). The world's simplest grammars are creole grammars.
Linguistic Typology 5(2/3).125-167.
Miestamo, Matti, Kaius Sinnemäki and Fred Karlsson, eds. (2008). Language
Complexity: Typology, Contact, Change. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
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Grover Hudson taught phonology, historical linguistics, and Ethiopian linguistics including Amharic language at Michigan State University. He is author of a comparative dictionary of Highland East Cushitic languages, an introductory linguistics textbook, with Anbessa Teferra a recent book on Amharic, and articles on phonology and Ethiopian descriptive and historical linguistics.

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