grammaticalization and complexity

Peter Harder harder at
Wed Mar 16 13:57:57 UTC 2011

Dear Wolfgang -

Your argument presupposes that linguistic complexity is identical to cognitive complexity. After fifty years of cognitive science, this is a natural assumption to make, and this also makes it is worth putting a question mark against it:

In addition to being the possession of an individual, a language is also a set of social affordances for and constraints on making yourself understood. These affordances/constraints may be more or less complex for the encoder to match - obvious examples of extra complexity being elaborate agreement systems - and that is a different question from the question of how complex the intended message is. In your terms, language is in itself  a form of 'explicitness', not just a cognitive structure.

Another way of saying this is that you presuppose that encoding comes for free and adds no extra complexity. Even in a hypothetical case where we assume that an intended message is identically specified for three different potential languages, and the speaker knows all language equally well, the encoding tasks are not the same.

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 Wolfgang Schulze [W.Schulze at]
Sendt: 16. marts 2011 14:04
Til: ama01 at
Cc: Funknet; Frederick J Newmeyer
Emne: Re: [FUNKNET] grammaticalization and complexity

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 *


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