grammaticalization and complexity

john at john at
Wed Mar 16 19:05:34 UTC 2011

Dear Wolfgang,
Maybe not, but it's pretty tough to explain definiteness to a native speaker of
Japanese or Russian, even if their knowledge of a language with articles is
generally pretty good. I've spent enough time trying to do this to be skeptical
of claims that these people really do know the concept of definiteness.

Quoting Wolfgang Schulze <W.Schulze at>:

> 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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