grammaticalization and complexity

Peter Harder harder at
Wed Mar 16 08:20:49 UTC 2011

Dear Fritz –

When I saw your invitation – (whose results I’d certainly be interested in having you sum up!) – it occurred to me that it might be useful if you said a few more words about your take on complexity.

>>From one perspective (cf. Dahl 2004 on the growth of linguistic complexity) the overall result of the rise of a new grammatical item is inevitably more complexity: the grammar of the language now needs to have another paragraph.
>>From another perspective (cf. Roberts and Rousseau 2003), the change from lexical to grammatical (‘functional’) status inevitably involves an element of simplification, cf. the familiar ‘attrition’ processes.

The way I see it, complexity has logical priority: When grammar arose phylogenetically, the key change was that utterances became structurally complex. Later, processes of grammaticalization may serve to simplify some complex structures (as when in Danish så Gud hjælpe mig ‘so God help me’ ends up as the particle sgu.). But note that the language still gets an extra grammatical element out of it.

Peter Harder, University of Copenhagen

Peter Harder
Professor, dr.phil.
telf. +45 35 32 86 09
Inst.f. Engelsk, Germansk og Romansk/Dept of English, Germanic and Romance Studies
University of Copenhagen
DK-2300 Njalsgade 130
Copenhagen S
Fra: funknet-bounces at [funknet-bounces at] På vegne af Frederick J Newmeyer [fjn at]
Sendt: 15. marts 2011 23:50
Til: Funknet
Emne: [FUNKNET] grammaticalization and complexity


I am looking for nice examples of where a grammaticalization-related change, however motivated it might be from the point of view of the language user, ends up increasing the overall complexity of the resultant grammatical system. One example that came to mind is the formation of the distinct grammatical category of Modal Auxilary in English out of a subclass of verbs. One might argue that English grammar is now more complex because there are two categories rather than one and each have very distinct properties. Can anybody think of other/better examples from other languages?

Thanks! I'll summarize if there is any interest.


Frederick J. Newmeyer
Professor Emeritus, University of Washington
Adjunct Professor, University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University
[for my postal address, please contact me by e-mail]

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