grammaticalization and complexity

Wolfgang Schulze W.Schulze at
Wed Mar 16 16:49:26 UTC 2011

Dear Peter,
these are really helpful remarks. Let me nevertheless comment upon some 
of them (sorry to bother you all again with my horrible English!):
> Your argument presupposes that linguistic complexity is identical to cognitive complexity.
No, that's not what I have tried to say. Starting from your formulation 
this would mean that linguistic complexity reflects parallel complexity 
in cognition and vice versa. This is just what I wanted to question. 
First of all, it is rather obscure to my what should be meant by 
'cognitive complexity'. The term would only make 'sense' if correlated 
with the assumption that where would be some kind of 'cognitive 
simplicity'. Such a categorization would perhaps make sense in case you 
compare say the cognition of humans with that of a jellyfish (if ever). 
But in our case, we deal with human cognition only. Thankfully, the 
assumption of human cognitions that would differ as for complexity has 
since long been abandoned. The only instance, where such a term will 
perhaps make sense seems to be developmental psychology. But even in 
this case, one might wonder what's the use of the term. In my eyes, the 
cognitive system of any animate being is (more or less) accommodated to 
its actual environment and shaped by assimilating crucial features of 
its actual environment. It hence is a an expression of adequateness. A 
linguistic 'system' reflects only parts of the cognitive 'world' of 
humans (much of language in a diachronically distorted manner, that is 
not in terms of immediate, synchronic causal/symbolic relations, but by 
reflection of older relations mediated over times and from generation to 
generation). As I have said before: I think that 'linguistic complexity' 
is just another heuristic tool to capture the degree of explicitness in 
language. There is no need to correlate this term to the extremely 
problematic term of '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.
Sorry to say, but here I cannot follow you. First, language (according 
to my humble opinion) is nothing that can be possessed (that is an 
'object'). Language is always and only given in the individual, not in 
terms of an 'object', but in terms of a network of symbolic routines, 
emergent processes and schematic cognitive events. Eben if we look at it 
'from the outside' (that is as linguistics), language first of all is a 
phenomenon, not an object. Its characterization (and construction!) 
heavily depends from the viewpoint of the observer and his/her 
experiential horizon (often formulated in terms of 'theories'). The 
process of 'reification' enables us to take language as an 'object' and 
to make it describable, but we must not transfer this secondarily 
construed 'object' into the cognition of an individual. Second, I do not 
think that language is conditioned by "a set of social affordances for 
and constraints on making yourself understood". Many sociological models 
suggest that the feature of 'being understood' is not governed by 
language, but mainly by social norms and habitual attitudes/practices 
represented by a potential perceiver. According to my understanding of 
language, it is first of all conditioned and structured to express 
'cognitive needs', regardless whether there is an audience immediately 
addressed or not (language is a system of 'cognitive cries', if you 
want). Only secondarily, the corresponding knowledge system becomes (by 
learning) socialized and integrated into the set of norms and behavioral 
'rules' present in a given speech community. These norms etc. naturally 
have a strong impact on the use of a language by its speaker, but they 
do not figure as a primary part of its ontology.
>   These affordances/constraints may be more or less complex for the encoder to match - obvious examples of extra complexity being elaborate agreement systems -
Honestly said, I do not fully understand this point. Sure, a L2-learner 
will happily turn to say Haitian Creole after having struggled with 
Navajo, but why should this hold for L1-learners? Navajo speakers did 
not by large abandon their language before the intrusion of English even 
though other 'less complex' languages had been available in their 
region. The present-day preference for English is not necessarily due to 
the fact that it is less complex that Navajo, but because it has social 
relevance and social 'marks' that are estimated more profitable for 
young Navajo speakers. But all this again depends from whether Navajo 
and English are both (!) learnt by the corresponding individual. A 
Navajo child will perhaps switch from L1-Navajo to L2-English because 
English is structurally more 'transparent' than Navajo, it would never 
do when not exposed to English at all (which sounds trivial). 
Disregarding the competing existence of English, L1-Navajo speakers are 
not faced with more problems of language learning and encoding than 
L1-English speakers - else Navajo would have - since long - been a 'dead 
>   and that is a different question from the question of how complex the intended message is.
What do you mean by 'message'? As I understand this term, it is 
immediately related the expression of cognitive states, enriched by 
aspects of intentionality. I cannot fully see what the criteria of 
complexity would be here.
>   In your terms, language is in itself  a form of 'explicitness', not just a cognitive structure.
Explicitness by itself means that certain ensembles of cognitive 
concepts, schemas etc. are symbolized in a more fine-grained way than 
others. But as I have said before: This does not mean that the 
'fine-grained' properties of these concepts, schemas etc. are not 
present and active if not symbolized at all. Rather we have to deal with 
the typical relation between the micro and macro layers of a given 
concept. Sometimes, the symbolization of the macro layer suffices to 
match the conventions, norms and the collective's set of cognitive 
concepts etc., sometimes the symbolization of its micro layer may have 
become relevant, for which reason so ever.
> Another way of saying this is that you presuppose that encoding comes for free and adds no extra complexity.
I guess you mean symbolization = encoding, right? Naturally, a symbolic 
system that constantly refers to the micro layer of a concept is more 
detailed than a symbolic system that constantly refers to the macro 
layer. But the second system does not 'lose' information. Personally, I 
have a pronounced preference for gestalt oriented psychology. And in 
this perspective, we may even claim that the first type of symbolic 
systems is even less 'complex' than the second one, because it is less 
informative with respect to the 'gestalt' of the concept.
>   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.
Sure, there is not doubt about this!

Best wishes,



*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>


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