Sum: Grammatical Complexity

Kaius Sinnemäki ksinnema at
Fri Dec 17 10:00:02 UTC 2004

Regarding the query and

I recently posted a query on grammatical complexity on LINGUIST-list and
FUNKNET in order to find any relevant research already being conducted
on the subject.

First, I would like to thank everyone who responded (Apologies for any
possible omission. In addition to these, there were other requests to
pass on the summary.):

Daniel L. Everett
Jan Rijkhoff
Tom Givón
David A. Havas
Miriam Meyerhoff
Doug Whalen
Sheri Wells Jensen
Gertraud Fenk-Oczlon
Patrick Juola

Here’s the summary of the comments and references I received.

Dan Everett suggested his recently submitted paper Cultural Constraints
on Grammar in Piraha, which is available on his website.

Jan Rijkhoff suggested Wouter Kusters’ recent dissertation and the
latest issue of Linguistic Typology (8-3, 2004), both very relevant.
(Kusters, Wouter. 2003. Linguistic complexity. Utrecht: LOT, Leiden.)

Tom Givon noted that all languages have roughly-equivalent expressive
powers but that some languages are typologically less likely to employ
embedded clauses. He suggested several chapters of his Syntax vol. II
(2001, Benjamins) for further reading on serial verbs, complementation,
clause union, relative clauses and chaining.

Doug Whalen forwarded the query on phonological complexity that he
summarized on LINGUIST in February 2004
( He’s also working on
how brain activation might correlate with complexity.

Shari Wells Jensen offered her dissertation on cross linguistic speech
errors, which suggest equal complexity from functional point of view:

Gertraud Fenk-Oczlon has worked on systemic typology and offered four
articles by her and August Fenk, which are very relevant to the
question, below:
Fenk, A. & Fenk-Oczlon, G. (1993). Menzerath's Law and the Constant Flow
of Linguistic Information. In: R. Köhler & B. Rieger (eds.)
Contributions to Quantitative Linguistics, 11-31. Dordrecht: Kluwer
Academic Publishers
Fenk-Oczlon, G. & Fenk, A. (1999). Cognition, Quantitative Linguistics,
and Systemic Typology. Linguistic Typology, 3, 151 - 177.
Fenk-Oczlon, G. & A. Fenk 2004. Crosslinguistic correlations between
size of syllables, number of cases, and adposition order. In G.
Fenk-Oczlon & Ch. Winkler (eds.), Sprache und Natürlichkeit, Gedenkband
für Willi Mayerthaler. Tübingen: Narr.
Fenk-Oczlon, G. & A. Fenk 2004. Systemic typology and crosslinguistic
regularities. In V. Solovyev & V. Polyakov (eds.) Text Processing and
Cognitive Technologie, Moscow MISA, pp. 229-234.

Miriam Meyerhoff commented on the difficulty of defining complexity,
especially when it comes to comparing probabilistic and/or categorical
marking of a feature at the syntax-discourse interface. She suggested a
chapter of hers due to appear in the Handbook of Pidgin and Creole
Linguistics and two of Jeff Siegel’s articles: (2004), Morphological
Elaboration, Journal of Pidgin and Creole languages 19 (2): 333-362, AND
(2004), Morphological simplicity in Pidgins and Creoles, Journal of
Pidgin and Creole languages 19 (1): 139-162).

David A. Havas suggested two articles on what Zipf's law means for
language and communication.
McCowan, B., Doyle, L., and Hanser, S. F., 2002. Using information
theory to assess the diversity, complexity, and development of
communicative repertoires. Journal of Comparative Psychology, 116, 2.
Ferrier i Cancho, R., & Sole, R. V., 2003. Least effort and the origins
of scaling in human language. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, 100, 3.

Patrick Juola mentioned his article on measuring linguistic complexity
with a method based on the notion of Kolmogorov complexity (Juola, P.
1998. Measuring Linguistic Complexity: The Morphological Tier, Journal
of Quantitative Linguistics 5(3):206-13). He managed to show that
languages vary in their morphological complexity, and that their
syntactic complexity revealed almost exactly the opposite tendency. Very
relevant article.

Thanks again to all who responded; I have benefited a lot from this. I
would be happy to receive any further comments or suggestions concerning
grammatical complexity.

Kaius Sinnemäki
Graduate student
Department of General Linguistics
University of Helsinki
<mailto:ksinnema at>

Kaius Sinnemäki, M.A., Researcher
General Linguistics, University of Helsinki
P.O Box 9 (Siltavuorenpenger 20A)
00014 University of Helsinki, FINLAND
Email: ksinnema at

More information about the Funknet mailing list