grammaticalization and complexity

Wolfgang Schulze W.Schulze at
Wed Mar 16 13:04:58 UTC 2011

Dear Bernd and Fritz,
languages without an article system do not (necessarily) imply that 
speakers of that language do not know the concept of (in)definiteness. 
All we can say is that they do not use specific linguistic signs to 
symbolize this feature. In other words: The development of an article 
system is not of the type X > X + Y, but rather X:Y > X + Y. A rise in 
complexity would then be nothing but a strengthening of linguistic 
explicitness. I think this holds for most instances of 
'grammaticalization'. In my eyes, speakers rarely 'invent' or 'create' 
(for their language) new linguistic categories (better: sets of 
language-based symbolic signs used to encode conceptual categories), but 
constantly waver between symbolizing these conceptual categories or not 
(this problem is directly connected with the famous Menon paradoxon 
(Platon)). From the 'outside', that is by looking at these linguistic 
categories as an observer, we are often left with the impression that 
there has been something 'new' going on (e.g. rise in complexity). 
However, this is a matter of the observer's view point. (S)he may state 
that a set of elements and structures that outnumbers another set is 
more complex; or, (s)he may argue that a set of elements outnumbering 
another set with respect to its structures alone is more complex. But 
this is a mere quantitative argument. What, if a set has the same number 
of elements as another system, but differs from the other set with 
respect to the degree of fusion (X:Y = X + Y)? When perceiving such 
sets, the set (X + Y) superficially takes more time to be processed and 
thus looks as being more complex. However, we can turn the argument 
around: (X:Y) could likewise be called more complex, because it 'has' 
something that the (X+Y) set lacks, namely 'fusion'. Consequently, one 
may doubt whether the concept of complexity (itself sometimes considered 
even as an autological term) is of any real use in (especially 
functional and cognitive) linguistics (except for didactic purpose, 
typological counting and statistics etc.). Unfortunately, the standard 
ways of defining complexity in e.g. system theory (Warren Weaver and 
many others) are of little help for judging upon complexity in 
linguistics, as far as I can see (but I may be wrong). Therefore, I 
prefer to skip this term at all and to use something like 'degree of 
explicitness' instead....
Best wishes,

Am 16.03.2011 12:34, schrieb ama01 at
> Thanks for raising this issue, dear Fritz. I don't think it is hard to 
> come up with further examples where grammaticalization was responsible 
> for an increase in overall complexity of the type X > X + Y. It all 
> depends of course on how you define "resultant grammatical system". 
> But if you assume, for example, that a language with (indefinite and 
> definite) articles is more complex than one without then there are 
> many languages in the world that have moved from less to more complex. 
> Neither Proto-Germanic nor Latin had articles, while modern Germanic 
> and Romance languages do, and the nature of the processes is 
> well-known (in most cases via a development numeral 'one' > indefinite 
> article, and demonstrative attribute > definite article, 
> respectively). In this sense then there has been an increase in 
> overall complexity (it goes without saying that this does not mean 
> that Modern English is overall "more complex" than Proto-Germanic). If 
> you want a hundred of more examples of this kind, please let me know.
> Best,
> Bernd
>> 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



*Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Schulze *


Institut für Allgemeine & Typologische Sprachwissenschaft

Dept. II / F 13

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Ludwigstraße 25

D-80539 München

Tel.: 0049-(0)89-2180-2486 (Secretary)

0049-(0)89-2180-5343 (Office)

Fax:  0049-(0)89-2180-5345

Email: W.Schulze at 
<mailto:W.Schulze at>/// Wolfgang.Schulze at 
<mailto:Wolfgang.Schulze at>


Personal homepage:


Diese e-Mail kann vertrauliche und/oder rechtlich geschützte 
Informationen enthalten. Wenn Sie nicht der richtige Adressat sind bzw. 
diese e-Mail irrtümlich erhalten haben, informieren Sie bitte umgehend 
den Absender und vernichten Sie diese e-Mail. Das unerlaubte Kopieren 
sowie das unbefugte Verwenden und Weitergeben vertraulicher e-Mails oder 
etwaiger, mit solchen e-Mails verbundener Anhänge im Ganzen oder in 
Teilen ist nicht gestattet. Ferner wird die Haftung für jeglichen 
Verlust oder Schaden, insbesondere durch virenbefallene e-Mails 

More information about the Funknet mailing list