complexity measures

Miguel Carrasquer Vidal mcv at
Sat Jan 17 17:04:58 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
David Lightfoot <dlight at> wrote:
>   Recent postings suggest that some people believe that languages are all
>equally complex (although this is not entailed by Larry Trask's original
>question, giving rise to this discussion).
We're having a parallel discussion on the Nostratic-list about this.
This was my contribution there (which somehow got lost, twice).  Maybe
I'll have better luck here.
jacob.baltuch at (Jacob Baltuch) wrote:
>But how does everybody know that "all languages are equivalently
>complex"? Is this something that has been shown or is this just
There is no objective measure of "language complexity", so I don't see
how this might have been "shown".  "Dogma", on the other hand, strikes
me as too strong a term.  I'd say "heuristic".  Most languages seem to
be about equivalently complex.  But there certainly are exceptions.
There are even terms used to describe the processes involved:
"exoterogeny" [simplification] and "esoterogeny" [complication].
According to Malcolm Ross, in his article "Social Networks and Kinds
of Speech-Community Event" (in: Archaeology and Language I, 1997),
these terms were coined by W.R. Thurston, in the context of
Austronesian/Oceanic linguistics [the languages of New Britain, to be
Quoting from Ross:
"If a community has extensive ties with other communities and their
emblematic language is also spoken as a contact language by members of
those communities, then they will probably value their language for
its use across community boundaries.  In the terminology of Thurston
it will be an 'exoteric' lect.  Its use by a wider range of speakers
means that an exoteric lect is subject to considerable variability,
and innovations leading to greater simplicity are liable to be
preferred (and those leading to greater complexity disfavoured).  This
simplifying process Thurston calls "exoterogeny": it reduces
phonological and morphological irregularity or complexity, and makes
the language more regular, more understandable and more learnable.
The outcome of this process is what Platt, seeking a term to describe
the less "educated" forms of Singapore English, called a "creoloid".
[...]  Exoterogeny differs from koineization [discussed previously in
teh article --mcv] in an important respect.  Both koineization and
exoterogeny result in simplification, but koineization also entails
the elimination of emblematic features of its contributing lects (i.e.
levelling).  Exoterogeny does not necessarily involve more than one
lect, so that levelling need not apply.
Esoterogeny is the opposite process.  If the members of a community
have few ties with other communities and their emblematic lect is not
usually known to outsiders, then they may use it as an "in-group"
code, an "esoteric" lect from which outsiders are consciously
excluded.  Innovations leading to increased complexity and to
differences from neighbouring lects will be favoured."
I have the impression that bilingualism (multilingualism) is an
important (or maybe even a necessary) aspect here.  Certainly the most
spectacular examples of "esoterogeny" are found in places like
Melanesia, where *everyone* is multilingual, speaking at least their
own "emblematic lect" (subject to esoterogeny) and one or more "lingua
franca" (subject to exoterogeny).  The phenomenon is much less
conspicuous in monolingual societies.
I wonder: are the "Italian dialects" more "complex" than Standard
Miguel Carrasquer Vidal
mcv at

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