grammaticalization and complexity

Östen Dahl oesten.dahl at
Wed Mar 16 12:28:55 UTC 2011

I sent the text below a little while ago as a personal message to Fritz, but I see now that I had better post it to the list.

"Obligatorification", the process by which markers and markings become obligatory, is usually seen as a central part of grammaticalization. In particular, if a lexical item turns into an obligatory grammatical marker, this would ceteris paribus increase the complexity of grammar -- a language with a certain grammatical marker has a more complex grammar than one without it, on any definition of complexity. For instance, the modern Germanic and Romance languages have articles -- early Germanic and Latin did not, so in this respect the modern languages have more complex grammars than their ancestors. The relationship is obscured by the fact that usually many things go on at once, and that often, it may seem that a newly introduced marker replaces an old one, in which case there is no obvious increase in complexity (maybe there will rather be a decrease, if the new system is simpler than the old one). So you may still have to choose your examples a bit carefully. In the case of the West European articles, people may say "well but the modern languages lost their case systems" -- although that is not true for all of them (such as German, Icelandic, and other conservative North Germanic varieties). If you don't want to argue about such situations, you could take an example like English reflexives -- Old English had got rid of the old Indo-European reflexives in s- (like German sich), and did not distinguish 'He washed him' and 'He washed himself'. (Apparently Frisian still does not.) So this would have been a simplification of the grammar, which was later reverted by the introduction of the new reflexives in -self. 

Your formulation "however motivated it might be from the point of view of the language user" suggests that you think of grammaticalization as a process driven by users' conscious needs. While that may be true of the initial stages of a grammaticalization process, I think it is not an adequate description of grammaticalization in general. In particular, obligatorification means that speakers lose the possibility of choosing between two alternatives, and so are worse off. 

You might want to look at my 2004 book "The growth and maintenance of linguistic complexity" (Benjamins), where I discuss these and similar questions extensively.


> -----Original Message-----
> From: funknet-bounces at [mailto:funknet-
> bounces at] On Behalf Of Frederick J Newmeyer
> Sent: den 15 mars 2011 23:50
> To: Funknet
> Subject: [FUNKNET] grammaticalization and complexity
> Funknetters,
> 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.
> --fritz
> 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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