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Review of  Measuring Grammatical Complexity

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Measuring Grammatical Complexity
Book Author: Frederick J. Newmeyer Laurel B Preston
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): General Linguistics
Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 26.2028

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Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


For many decades it was an axiom of linguistics that all human languages are equally complex; the claim was put forward as uncontroversial in many influential textbooks. Sometimes the point was expanded by saying that languages might differ in the complexity of particular structural subsystems, but greater complexity in one system would be balanced by less in another, for instance Charles Hockett (1958: 180–1) said that Fox has a more complex morphology than English but a correspondingly simpler syntax. This idea has 19th-century roots in both Britain and America.

In the 21st century the axiom has been challenged. The earliest widely-read counterarguments were probably those contained in Miestamo et al. (2008) and Sampson et al. (2009). Surprisingly, to some (at least) of us who were responsible for the challenges, we seemed to be pushing at an open door. As the editors of the volume under review say (p. 7), ''linguists of all stripes are increasingly willing to entertain the idea that one language might indeed be simpler or more complex than another''. Many linguists now take that position for granted, though quite recently it was heresy.

The present book is the outcome of a workshop held at Seattle in March 2012 under the title ''Formal linguistics and the measurement of grammatical complexity''. After an Introduction by the co-editors it contains thirteen chapters in which various contributors examine different aspects of this topic.

One enlightening way to characterize the book as a whole might be to compare it with the 2008 and 2009 volumes cited above, all three being collections stemming from conferences (in the 2008 and 2009 cases held in Helsinki and in Leipzig respectively). Although quite comparable in many respects, the new book contrasts with the previous two both geographically and methodologically. Almost all early dissent from the equal-complexity axiom arose among European linguists, and although North American academics often attend meetings in Europe, few participated in the Helsinki or Leipzig workshops. Even in the present volume, derived from a meeting on the US west coast, a majority of contributors are European-based, but in this book there is also a respectable representation of American and Canadian scholars. And that correlates with a difference in the methodological flavour of many chapters. The Helsinki and Leipzig volumes were fairly thoroughly empirical, with few appeals to abstruse theoretical concepts. Many contributors to the present book, on the other hand, are chiefly concerned to bring the issue of language complexity into relationship with generative-linguistics theorizing, including the concept of Universal Grammar and the principles of the Minimalist Programme.

This is not to suggest that European linguists are all empiricists and American ones all generativist. As a statistical tendency there may be some truth in that, but it is certainly not an absolute rule, and within this book for instance Chapter 7, by Andreas Trotzke of Germany and Jan-Wouter Zwart of the Netherlands, focuses on Minimalism, while Chapter 10, by the American David Ross, is quite empirical and un-theory-laden. But it is natural that a conference organized in the USA will have made an effort to attract European scholars whose interests chime with American majority concerns, and the result is a book whose overall flavour is rather different from the 2008 and 2009 books.

To outline each chapter separately would make for an over-long review, but a simple list of chapter-titles (after the co-editors' Introduction) will give an impression of the range of topics covered:

2 Major contributions from formal linguistics to the complexity debate, by John Hawkins

3 Sign languages, creoles, and the development of predication, by David Gil

4 What you can say without syntax: a hierarchy of grammatical complexity, by Ray Jackendoff and Eva Wittenberg

5 Degrees of complexity in syntax: a view from evolution, by Ljiljana Progovac

6 Complexity in comparative syntax: the view from modern parametric theory, by Theresa Biberauer, Anders Holmberg, Ian Roberts, and Michelle Sheehan

7 The complexity of narrow syntax: Minimalism, representational economy, and simplest Merge, by Andreas Trotzke and Jan-Wouter Zwart

8 Constructions, complexity, and word order variation, by Peter Culicover

9 Complexity trade-offs: a case study, by Kaius Sinnemäki

10 The importance of exhaustive description in measuring linguistic complexity: the case of English _try and_ pseudocoordination, by Daniel Ross

11 Cross-linguistic comparison of complexity measures in phonological systems, by Steven Moran and Damián Blasi

12 The measurement of semantic complexity: how to get by if your language lacks generalized quantifiers, by Lisa Matthewson

13 Computational complexity in the brain, by Cristiano Chesi and Andrea Moro

14 Looking for a ''Gold Standard'' to measure language complexity: what psycholinguistics and neurolinguistics can (and cannot) offer to formal linguistics, by Lise Menn and Cecily Jill Duffield


This book is very rich in ideas, many of which cry out to be explored further and evaluated positively or negatively by a reviewer. Within the bounds of a reasonable review it is impossible to do this comprehensively, and I shall limit myself to taking up a few points which strike me as particularly significant -- another reviewer might well choose different issues to discuss.

One recurring problem is that the empirically-minded contributors and those who believe in Universal Grammar seem to argue past one another rather than engaging seriously. For instance, David Gil argues, as he has frequently done elsewhere, that languages which fail to encode logical distinctions which are basic to English and other European languages must often be seen as ''vague'' rather than ''ambiguous'' with respect to those distinctions. If a young American child produces the utterance ''Mommy sock'', this could be interpreted into adult English either as ''Mommy's sock'' or as ''Mommy is putting a sock on me'', i.e. as a case of attribution or of predication; Gil suggests that we may be wrong to suppose that the distinction is meaningful in the child's mind, and whether or not that is so he argues, alluding to extensive evidence, that there are languages spoken by adults in which such a contrast is meaningless. Gil believes that linguists often fail to notice this because of mental blinkers imposed on us by the dominance of European-derived cultures and languages in the modern world. Ray Jackendoff and Eva Wittenberg's chapter is intended as an answer to Gil, but they begin by writing (p. 66) ''We assume that ... people across the planet ... think the same thoughts, no matter what kind of grammatical system they use''. Surely, one cannot refute an empirically-based claim by simply ''assuming'' its converse? Gil is saying that members of different cultures _don't_ think all the same thoughts, and to my mind he is obviously right. It is true that, in the 21st century, every language used as the official language of a recognized State is capable of rendering the intricate logical structures of, say, the United Nations Charter, but that is because in the world as it has evolved, in order to be taken seriously as a nation any human group has been required to change its language to make it capable of expressing the same logical distinctions as are found in the Latin-influenced languages of Europe. Languages spoken far from centres of power, or before the period of European cultural dominance, often lack or lacked logical distinctions that are crucial to European languages, and contain(ed) other distinctions which European languages do not make; and the language structures are the best guide we have to the nature of the speakers' thought-patterns. (For fuller discussion see Sampson et al. 2009: 15–18, Sampson and Babarczy 2014.)

Incidentally, even as a believer in Universal Grammar, Lisa Matthewson demonstrates, using evidence from a native language spoken in British Columbia and Washington State, that languages are _not_ ''equally capable of expressing any idea'' and that UG ''does not plausibly contain a list of meanings which all languages must be able to express'' (p. 263). I do not understand how Jackendoff and Wittenberg can hope to refute arguments like Gil's and Matthewson's via what the former describe in their opening line as a ''thought experiment''.

A related problem is that the generative linguists' chapters often presuppose familiarity with technical terminology which is not part of a general linguistic education, in the way that terms like ''phoneme'' or ''NP'' are. Ljiljana Progovac discusses the construction of ''TP'' and ''vP'' elements (p. 85). Theresa Biberauer et al. (p. 107) ''take Merge to recursively combine two syntactic objects alpha and beta ... [which] may be drawn from the Lexicon/Numeration (External Merge), or ... from within alpha or beta (Internal Merge)''. Lisa Matthewson asserts (p. 244) that an NP of the form _every N_ ''can neither be analyzed as being of type e, nor as being of type <e,t> ... [but] must be of type <<e,t>,t>''. I have been studying linguistics fairly intensively for fifty years, but I am afraid that these references mean nothing to me. In view of what I have seen elsewhere of the genre of discourse in which they are at home, I wonder whether some of them mean anything much at all; they are not explained in this book. Biberauer et al. write that their remark quoted above, together with more in the same vein, amounts to ''a fairly mainstream set of technical assumptions'', but there is evidently more than one mainstream.

A different kind of problem concerns the concept of ''complexity'' itself. Contributors differ in how far (if at all) they believe it is possible to measure the complexity of a human language. At one extreme, Theresa Biberauer et al. are prepared to quote specific figures for the complexity of individual languages, offering the following table (p. 125):

Japanese 1.6
Mohawk 1.8
Mandarin 2
Basque 2
English 3

Others discuss properties which make for greater or less complexity in a language, without claiming to be able to put a figure on overall complexity. David Ross makes the healthy suggestion that, for a computation of overall language complexity, quite out-of-the-way pieces of grammar (his example is the English _try and Verb_ construction) would be just as relevant as central syntactic properties such as discussed by Biberauer et al. (e.g. consistency with respect to Greenbergian word-order universals): all are part of what a speaker has to learn, even if some constructions are only infrequently deployed in speech. (Ross makes this point partly in order to object (p. 206) to John McWhorter's claim that pidgins and creoles are simpler than ''old'' languages, though it is not clear that Ross has actual counterevidence to McWhorter's claim.) Some (e.g. John Hawkins, p. 29) urge that it is meaningless to talk of one language being more complex than another because there is no metric which could make the overall complexity of different languages commensurable. (However, I have argued elsewhere (Sampson 2014), via an analogy with legal systems, that unquantifiability would not be a bar to recognizing greater or less complexity among cultural constructs such as languages.) Many of these various points of view are pursued without a consideration of what we mean in general by the word ''complex'' -- and that is reasonable enough, since after all it is a standard word of everyday English. But some contributors do think it is important to pin down what we mean by calling a system ''complex'', and they mainly do so by referring to the ideas of the physicist Murray Gell-Mann (who apparently claimed explicitly that his definition of complexity applied to languages among other things).

Gell-Mann defines the complexity of an entity in terms of the minimum length of a description of it. That puzzles me, because description length seems wholly dependent on the language used for describing. Consider two languages, one of which makes nouns plural by reduplication, i.e. saying the singular form twice, while the other suffixes to the singular form a phoneme sequence derived from that form by deleting each even-numbered phoneme and then inserting the vowel /i/ wherever two consonants are adjacent, and the consonant /b/ wherever two vowels fall together. Intuitively we would surely agree that the second pluralization rule is more complex than the first. Yet, if we extended English by adopting a term ''thaumatize'', meaning ''repeat after deleting each even-numbered phoneme, then inserting ... [etc.]'', the ''complex'' pluralization rule could be described very concisely: ''the singular is thaumatized''. Gell-Mann's approach seems to require agreement on a fixed description-language (which might include the word ''repeat'' but not ''thaumatize''). But identifying what that description-language should comprise might be more difficult than glossing the ordinary English word ''complex''.

(Incidentally, Daniel Ross says (p. 204) that his complexity concept is specifically the one that Gell-Mann calls ''effective complexity'', but I can find no relationship between Ross's exposition and Gell-Mann's ''effective complexity'', at least as that is defined in Gell-Mann (1995).)

The difficulties of defining complexity perhaps make a suitable note on which to bring this review to a close. There are many other points in this book which would be well worth discussion, but rather than exhausting readers' patience let me instead warmly recommend that they read and ponder the book for themselves.

The book is well-produced, with few printing errors, though the prime sign, as in ''A'-movement'', is repeatedly (e.g. p. 115) shown as an apostrophe; the Old English letter thorn is more than once given as a capital where it should be lower case (p. 152); and the German verb 'wollen' is misprinted on p. 163 as 'wöllen'. I noticed one point which appears to be a serious factual error: on p. 294 Lise Menn and Cecily Jill Duffield state that the ''edh'' sound of e.g. ''this'', ''then'', is the most frequently occurring English consonant, but every source I have consulted puts that phoneme quite a way down the frequency list. I cannot recognize Trotzke and Zwart's definition of ''context-free phrase-structure grammar'' (p. 142) as equivalent to standard definitions of that term. When, in a footnote on p. 40, David Gil says that nominative and accusative case markings are identical for many Russian verbs, I think ''verbs'' must be a careless slip for ''nouns''.


Gell-Mann, M. 1995. What is complexity? Complexity 1.16–19.

Hockett, C.F. 1958. A Course in Modern Linguistics. New York: Macmillan.

Miestamo, M., K. Sinnemäki, and F. Karlsson, eds. 2008. Language Complexity: Typology, Contact, Change. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Sampson, G.R. 2014. Complexity in language and in law. Poznan Studies in Contemporary Linguistics 50.169–77;

Sampson, G.R. and A. Babarczy. 2014. Grammar Without Grammaticality: Growth and Limits of Grammatical Precision. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Sampson, G.R., D. Gil, and P. Trudgill, eds. 2009. Language Complexity as an Evolving Variable. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Geoffrey Sampson MA, PhD (Cambridge), FBCS, Professor Emeritus, is a Research Fellow in linguistics at the University of South Africa, having retired from the Sussex University School of Informatics in 2009. His books and articles have contributed to most areas of linguistics, and also include works on statistics, computer science, political thought, and ancient Chinese poetry. His most recent book is a new edition of 'Writing Systems' (Equinox, 2015). Homepage: .

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