complexity measures

bwald bwald at HUMnet.UCLA.EDU
Tue Jan 20 00:27:57 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
David Lightfoot wrote:
... it might follow from some basic principles or some
>theory that languages must be equally complex. I know of no such
>empirical support nor of any theoretical underpinning for such an idea.
>What am I missing?
My understanding is that linguists make the "equal complexity" assertion
because of the analytical equality of languages principle, fashioned into a
dogma for pedagogical purposes.  David surely knows that there is no agreed
upon measure and that the assertion arises from the dogmatic principle and
not from any measure of simplicity/complexity.  So, you might say that it
is precisely BECAUSE there is no simplicity matrix that this assertion is
made -- as a NULL HYPOTHESIS, if you will.  I do not know the precise
history of the principle in the present context, i.e., why it arose, but I
imagine that it was in the context of postponing (till more important
matters are settled) such ethnocentric claims/impressions as that French is
simpler than Georgian, asserted by an English speaker, or Georgian is
simpler than French or English, asserted by a Kabardian speaker, not to
mention that (written) Chinese is next to impossible to learn in middle age
(regardless of its grammar), asserted by countless Westerners, and so on
(where, obviously, a learnability principle relative to a speaker's first
language motivates judgments of the complexity of other languages).
Meanwhile, David is quite right to point out the mystification involved in
taking the principle too seriously.  It would mean that as some process
came to "simplify" some part of the grammar, either,
a.  AT THE SAME TIME, some other process would have to "complicate" some
other part of the
        grammar, to maintain "balance"
b.  the grammar resulting from the simplification would be "unstable" until
        complexification took place.  (the ultimate in unprovability since
no language is globally
Such ideas are not so much manifestly incorrect as they are obscure for
purposes of  serious interpretation and empirical testing.  One thing that
IS clear is that the dogma should be recognized as assigning the BURDEN OF
PROOF to being explicit and precise about how languages may differ with
respect to simplicity or complexity before claiming that they are indeed
different in this respect.
P.S.  One interesting manifestation of the dogma was the opinion that all
first languages are acquired in "to the same extent" in the same amount of
time by their speakers.  Presumably that meant that for any language, all
first learners will do something like give the impression of having
"mastered" the language at approximately the same age, presumably when
compared somehow with adult speakers of the same language.  Apart from the
fact that it is difficult to draw the line between not-yet-acquired and
basically-already-acquired, Dan Slobin long ago suggested that the basic
premiss is not literally true, and that child acquirers of highly inflected
languages like Russian take longer to learn such things than their
counterparts learning English.  That is an empirical finding.  But, in this
case, we know exactly what Slobin is talking about -- acquisition of
complex case paradigms, something which does not exist to be learned in
English.  I am not suggesting that we go from this to concluding that
Russian as a language is more "complex" than English, but only that its
case paradigms are more complex than English case paradigms -- something a
priori obvious by everyone's understanding of a complexity measure.  What
was not obvious before empirical observation was how long it would take
first language speakers to acquire the Russian cases and their various
forms (at least to ordinary adult mastery).
I suspect that there will never be a useful interpretation of such GLOBAL
claims as:
"Languages differ in over-all complexity", or, "Languages are basically the
same in over-all complexity."  But maybe this is just my opinion.-- Benji

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