grammaticalization and complexity

David Kronenfeld david.kronenfeld at
Wed Mar 16 15:17:55 UTC 2011

Dear Peter and others,
     This is a very important observation.
                                         David Kronenfeld

David B. Kronenfeld, Professor Emeritus  Phone   951-682-5096
Department of Anthropology             Message   951 827-5524
University of California               Fax       951 827-5409
Riverside, CA 92521                 email   david.kronenfeld at

On 3/16/2011 6:57 AM, Peter Harder wrote:
> 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,
> Wolfgang
> 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
> --
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