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Review of  Understanding and Measuring Morphological Complexity

Reviewer: Anish Koshy
Book Title: Understanding and Measuring Morphological Complexity
Book Author: Matthew Baerman Dunstan Brown Greville G. Corbett
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Linguistic Field(s): Linguistic Theories
Issue Number: 27.2749

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Reviews Editor: Helen Aristar Dry


Morphological complexity can be a result of various factors of exponence, that is, how individual items are realized. Complexity could be a result of discontinuous roots, circumfixes, portmanteau morphs, morphological zeroes, subtractive morphology, umlaut, ablaut, syncretism, defective paradigms, deponency, variation, allomorphy, historical change, restructuring or grammaticalization among others, or the result of the sheer quantity of morphological elaboration of the polysynthetic type. “Understanding and Measuring Morphological Complexity”, edited by Matthew Baerman, Dunstan Brown, and Greville G. Corbett, is an important contribution to a very important area of inquiry in linguistics and is the second one on complexity to be published recently by the OUP, with the former (Newmeyer and Preston (2014)) dealing with syntactic complexity from a Generative perspective. This volume consists of ten chapters arranged in 3 parts with an 11-page common reference-list at the end.


In the introductory chapter “Understanding and measuring morphological complexity: An introduction”, the editors discuss various approaches to understanding morphological complexity from previous works on the theme. These approaches distinguish complexity in morphology as not being linked to syntax and as being results of looking at morphological operations variously from a syntagmatic or a paradigmatic approach. Entropical analysis of complexity (based on predictability) by different scholars is also touched upon. The different papers in the volume are also summarized.

In Chapter 2, “Dimensions of morphological complexity”, Stephen R. Anderson invokes Sapir’s three-dimensional understanding of morphological markers from a typological perspective, namely, (a) the number of inflectional and derivational markers themselves; (b) the way the markers attach (inflectional vs. agglutinative; the scope that later affixes have on already attached ones); and (c) the number of markers that can be found on a word (isolating vs. polysynthetic). Complexity is understood as not necessarily always a consequence of a system’s components being added up together, but also arising due to morphotactic organization, non-resolution of the competing demands of Faithfulness and Markedness, semantic factors of scope, and/or phonological factors.

Part II on “Understanding Complexity” begins with Chapter 3, “Rhizomorphomes, meromorphomes, and metamorphomes”, wherein Erich R. Round distinguishes what he calls three species of morphomes. Morphomes, though prominent in the organization of a language’s morphological system, are observed to be mostly anisomorphic with the syntactic, semantic and phonological systems. Rhizomorphomes deal with classes of roots, which determine their morphological behaviour; meromorphomes deal with exponence of morphological operations; metamorphomes deal with realization of meromorphomes. The data discussed in the chapter is mostly from Kayardild. It is argued that morphological exponence due to percolating of features and non-realization of some features due to blocking leads to complexity. Contexts of deponency and virtual rules of exponence are also posited to account for the system’s complexity. Kayardild complexity is said to arise due to the ability of ‘identity of exponence’ to skip some eligible classes of stems and also by their ability to breach the inflection-derivation divide.

In Chapter 4, “Morphological opacity: Rules of referral in Kanum verbs”, Mark Donohue focuses on complexity that arises as a result of lack of transparency in the mapping of features present and their expression. Verbal inflection in Kanum is an elaborate system of oppositions with mostly regular distribution. It also shows instances where elements of a paradigm are marked by referral from other inflectional cells, with pronominal object agreement markers showing syncretism. This happens in spite of there being independent pronouns and independent agreement indexing for all persons in the subject role in the language. Complexity in Kanum is also attributable to rarity (as compared to other languages), due to the invoking of unusual features for the person axis in the agreement system. Opacity in the pronominal system also adds to the complexity; so also does the unpredictability of takeovers of inflectional cells.

In Chapter 5 “Morphological complexity à la Oneida”, Jean-Pierre Koenig and Karin Michelson discuss morphological complexity arising out of a system of morphological referencing of event participants, achieved via a system of fifty-eight pronominal prefixes, an obligatory part of the verbal inflection. Complexity arises here out of the paradigmatic notions of selection and segmentation. Paradigmatic complexity is quantified via the number and kind of rules needed for realizing morphological distinctions, the presence of semantic ambiguity, directness/indirectness of rule application, and the ease of segmentation and generalization. The authors also wonder why the task of retrieving multiple pronominal prefixes is generally considered more complex than the task of retrieving content words from the mental lexicon, when the number of vocabulary stems known to us is in many magnitudes higher. It is speculated that this could be so because of (a) obligatory nature of inflectional markers, (b) the inter-related choices speakers have to make, and (c) the choice of the right allomorph.

In Chapter 6 “Gender–number marking in Archi: Small is complex”, Marina Chumakina and Greville G. Corbett discuss how gender-number marking, though realized by a small paradigm of markers, proves complex due to multiple overlapping factors – phonological, morphological, syntactic and semantic. Phonological factors include considerations like consonant or vowel initial, monosyllabic or polysyllabic structure, and stress on first syllable or second syllable. Morphological factors contributing to complexity include the presence of aspectual and modality markers, inventory of inflectional targets, position of the inflectional marker, and patterns of syncretism (with only suffixes allowing syncretism), among others. Syntactic factors like part of speech also affect choices. Semantic factors like stative vs. dynamic verbs and lack of semantic homogeneity also contribute to complexity.

Part III on “Measuring Complexity” begins with Chapter 7 “Contrasting modes of representation for inflectional systems: Some implications for computing morphological complexity”. The authors, Gregory Stump and Raphael A. Finkel, begin with a critique of information-theoretic and set theoretic based computational models of computing complexity. According to them the computational models are limited by the manner in which information-class systems are represented. They discuss the ‘plat’ representation of English verbs and the series of choices it entails in terms of morphosyntactic property sets, representation of inflectional exponents, etc. The ‘plat’ representations are discussed from a ‘hearer-oriented’ and a ‘speaker-oriented’ perspective, and also in terms of conditional entropy, principal parts, inflection-class and cell predictability. According to the authors complexity of an inflectional system is taken to be the extent to which it inhibits motivated inferences about the word forms in a lexeme’s realized paradigm.

In Chapter 8 “Computational complexity of abstractive morphology”, Vito Pirrelli, Marcello Ferro, and Claudia Marzi discuss the abstractive perspective where word forms (and not roots and affixes) are treated as basic units and their recurrent parts as abstractions over full forms. Learning morphology in this perspective is learning relations between fully stored word forms. This view is in opposition to the constructive approach, which is morph-based. The authors contend that the associative framework of the abstractive approach fares better in explaining morphological processing and acquisition. Computational complexity is understood by means of self-organizing maps. The approach presented here represents a cross-disciplinary approach to language inquiry. It presents a computational model that tests dynamic inter-relations and processing architectures.

In Chapter 9 “Patterns of syncretism and paradigm complexity: The case of Old and Middle Indic declension”, Paolo Milizia discusses the principle of compensation with respect to the massive case syncretism in the dual number of the nominal declension of ancient Indo-European languages. Syncretism is seen as a result of a superordinate category, which appears with a marked value. The pattern becomes complex when the number of grammatical categories involved is more than two. Nested hierarchies also complicate the idea of a category hierarchy in these operations. The adjectival declension of the –a/ā –stems in Old and Middle Indic and the syncretism pattern across three grammatical categories of number, gender and case are discussed in some detail. The author argues for a need to reformulate the compensation principle in terms of frequency and information content, as the principle of compensation basically achieves avoiding an excessive number of marked values. While marked values are not addable, markedness is. Paradigm relationships are understood in terms of information theory. Syncretism is seen as compensating for differences in frequencies of information cells of a paradigm in order to achieve equilibrium with respect to the quantitative distribution of inflectional items.

In Chapter 10 “Learning and the complexity of Ø-marking”, Sebastian Bank and Jochen Trommer discuss the process of ‘stemming’ (identification of lexical stems in inflectional word-forms) and the process of ‘subanalysis’ (identifying affixes in the affixal strings isolated by stemming). For example, in German, Ø-affixes are seen as crucial factors enabling subanalysis. It is seen as facilitating the learning of subsegmentation. A hierarchy of subanalysis complexity is drawn up based primarily on the parameters of occurrence of free markers and reduction in search-space for possible segmentation. An incremental learning algorithm for inflectional affixes is drawn up to understand its impact on learning of inflectional paradigms. A correlation between complexity classes and distribution of Ø-marking is also drawn up based on a typological pilot study of inflectional verbal paradigms of twenty languages.


The study of linguistic complexity is riddled with many traditionally received, axiomatically-accepted-as-true positions about languages. When it comes to complexity it has often been viewed more like a trivia than a linguistic tool. The accepted wisdom in the field, also known as ‘compensatory complexity’ (cf: Bane 2008: 69), is that all languages are equally complex and that what one language expresses in morphology is equally expressible in another language by some other means. This has meant that linguists have often avoided a comparative study of complexity. Since complexity has often been dealt with impressionistically, with languages with unfamiliar structures for the investigating linguist coming out as ‘complex’, such studies have also been accused of turning languages of unfamiliar cultures into exotic entities. This volume has to be commended for not only avoiding the pitfalls of the aforementioned types, but also for attempting to provide numerical and algorithmic bases for measuring and comparing aspects of complexity, not merely across languages but also within a language between what may be impressionistically understood as simple and complex structures. It is only when we have a substantial literature available on this, that we could move forward in hypothesizing if morphological complexity, its parameters and its components constitute in any way a significant typological parameter in the description of languages comparable to other typological parameters like the Greenbergian ones.

The concept of complexity in language is not a homogeneous one. Some scholars have looked at complexity as not representing a language’s morphological richness but its redundancies and its unproductive patterns (cf: Dressler (1999)). Others, as in the present volume, look at complexity in morphology as being directly linked to the complexity of functions and as being about paradigmatic relationships. Thus, highly agglutinating languages like Turkish or the Dravidian languages, or inflectional languages like Sanskrit and Latin, with elaborate paradigms, come out as representing complex morphological structures. In some of these languages, inflectional markers appear in patterns that go beyond the simple necessity of satisfying syntactic requirements/functions contributing to complexity. For example, the different paradigms drawn for Sanskrit nouns depending on whether it is an a-stem, i-stem, or u-stem ending word, is an added layer of complexity that is seen as going beyond functional requirements.

Morphological complexity is an important area of investigation for different linguistic subfields, and this volume will prove useful to many of them. Typologists will find the structural resources employed in the various languages discussed in the chapters interesting. Sociolinguists and those working with endangered languages would take a keen interest in this phenomenon due to what morphological complexity or a reduction of a once complex morphological system has to say about the vitality of the language (with simplification in structure often linked to a decline in the vitality). Historical linguists find the principle of compensation, discussed in Chapter 9 in this volume, useful in understanding the diachronic development of a language. Studying complexity is of great importance for psycholinguists as well. Their investigations often involve the parsing, processing, assessing, representation, and production of these complex structures. Many of these issues are touched upon in the chapters.

Most discussions on complexity and simplification end up being only impressionistic, with the investigator’s own L1 deciding if another language is to be treated as having a very complex structure or a moderately complex one and simplification is often understood in such impressionistic studies as merely signifying the loss of some erstwhile structures or strategies in the language. This work must particularly be commended for putting figures to such impressions and providing tools for furthering the study of morphological complexity. Reading this volume makes it fairly obvious what Juola (1998) meant by saying that “to compare, one must first measure, and the process of measurement is not intuitively obvious” (206).

A major issue with the chapters on ‘Measuring Complexity’, however, is an over-abundant use, with a kind of presupposed familiarity, of technical terms and analytical tools that are not usually part of a standard linguistic training. Thus, the tools used for calculations, and the terminology employed, make it difficult for the book to be used as a stand-alone resource, as most readers will need to have some background reading beyond linguistics to understand and appreciate fully the conceptual and computational tools employed in the task of ‘Measuring Complexity’. If these chapters on ‘Measuring Complexity’ have been written with a non-linguistic audience in mind, it has not been made obvious in the introductory chapters.

The authors have been fairly successful in discussing the nature of morphological complexity in quite a varied set of languages. The focused treatment of complexity in morphology as delineated from complexity in other domains of language, helps the scholars in not only explaining how, in spite of universal parameters of variation, languages come out to be very different from each other in the domain of morphology unless genetically related, which therefore rightly merits a treatment different from the treatment of complexity in syntax or phonology. This focused treatment also enables the scholars to employ tools that can study complexity at a paradigmatic level. This is also important because of the role morphological systems play in the establishment of genetic links between languages. It is indeed intriguing that while languages unrelated to each other still follow universal patterns/parameters in their syntactic and phonological organization, the domain of morphology only allows very macro-level generalizations, like the use/non-use of inflection, the property of agglutination and its absence, etc. It is probably because of such lack of micro-level morphological universals, that morphological complexity is often left to impressionistic generalizations, as the definition and exact parameters of complexity at the level of morphology tend to differ quite unsystematically. This volume is mainly an attempt not to systematize into universal parameters the study of morphological complexity, but to provide computational tools to measure complexity. Nichols (1992) had famously quipped when talking of complexity that “how to measure complexity is itself an issue of some complexity”, and therefore what the volume achieves with respect to the task of measuring complexity is no easy task. We are, however, still some way from finding out the applicational use of these complex measuring techniques.

While no claims for the applicability of the measurement techniques discussed in the volumehave been made with respect to their usefulness in the general typology of languages, such an orientation should not have been entirely ignored. We are certainly aware that complexity can be studied solely in terms of its calculations and algorithms, but without a larger perspective and grounding within the linguistic system of variation within defined patterns, the study remains incomplete even though very important. These issues are being raised as possible areas for future research and not as in any way taking away from this very insightful and stimulating book . The volume does provide useful insights to various sub-disciplines in linguistics.

Complexity is also a matter of linguistic rarity. If linguistic features were found in all languages, we would probably not be talking of them as being ‘complex’. However, this rarity also raises an important question with respect to the architecture of language as well as with respect to the human capacity for language or UG. That children who speak these languages acquire the most complex of these systems with ease makes Anderson (in this volume) wonder if morphological complexity is deeply ingrained in the nature of language. This will be a very fruitful area of investigation in the future, once we measure and prove that certain structures are more complex or that certain languages have more complex morphological structures than others. An explanatory approach to complexity promises to be very challenging in our current state of knowledge.

If complexity is an important typological parameter then it becomes important “to map the boundaries of that range according to some metric” (Bane 2008: 69). A fruitful dimension for further research could be to investigate typologically not only the typological patterns in complex structures, but also the dominant patterns of simplification when it occurs, and to see if there are any universal systems underlying simplification of complex structures. Psycholinguists also take keen interest in morphological complexity with respect to its effect on short-term memory, especially whether complex words prove indifferent in the chunking process. Computational and neuro-linguists are interested in knowing how complexity is automated. Some of these issues are touched upon in the chapters, while most are left out.

This volume is a useful beginning in our attempt to concretize the conceptual understanding of complexity. That there aren’t many book-length treatments of morphological complexity makes this volume not only a path-breaking attempt, but also a very important contribution to knowledge. Readers from different orientations in linguistics will find this book useful and rewarding.


Bane, Max. 2008. ''Quantifying and Measuring Morphological Complexity.'' In Proceedings of the 26th West Coast Conference on Formal Linguistics, ed. by Charles B. Chang and Hannah J. Haynie. Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Proceedings Project, 69-76.

Dressler, Wolfgang U. 1999. ''Ricchezza e complessità morfologica.'' In Fonologia e Morfologia dell’Italiano e dei Dialetti d’Italia, ed. by Paola Benincà and Nicoletta Penello. Rome: Bulzoni, 587-597.

Juola, Patrick. 1998. ''Measuring linguistic complexity: The morphological tier.'' Journal of Quantitative Linguistics 5.3: 206–13.

Newmayer, Frederick J., and Laurel B. Preston. 2014. Measuring grammatical complexity. Oxford: OUP.

Nichols, J. 1992. Linguistic diversity in space and time. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
I work on the morphosyntactic structure of Indian languages from a typological and areal perspective. I have worked on typological aspects of the Austroasiatic languages, especially on different Mon-Khmer languages spoken in Meghalaya in the Northeastern region of India and have a Doctoral thesis on ''The typology of clitics in the Austroasiatic languages of India.'' I am currently teaching at the English and Foreign Languages University, Hyderabad, India. My career interests include working on the morphosyntax of lesser-studied languages of India from a typological perspective.

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