complexity measures

Scott DeLancey delancey at
Tue Jan 20 14:58:47 UTC 1998

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
On Mon, 19 Jan 1998, David L Fertig wrote:
> Languages (or speakers or learners) do not tolerate purposeless
> complexity. It seems to me that this is just a generalized version of the
> constraint on acquisition that Clark calls the "Principle of Contrast",
> a.k.a. "no exact synonymy". When faced with any complexity, learners will
> either figure out a function for it or eliminate it. This means that all
> linguistic complexity serves some kind of purpose.
This too seems like it can't be anything more than an article of faith.
Many Indo-European languages retain, not only grammatical gender,
but distinct, arbitrary declension classes within, or even to an
extent cross-cutting, gender classes.  These have been retained for
millenia.  They certainly add considerably to the overall complexity
of the language.  There's been a little work done (I remember a paper
somewhere by David Zubin) suggesting that there may be some mnemonic
function to grammatical gender, but even if so, what purpose could
possibly be served by the maintenance of significant bodies of irregular
declensions?  For that matter, what purpose is served by English
strong verbs?  True, they seem to be slowly falling out of the
language, but pretty slowly ... the language has tolerated them
for a long time, and doesn't seem to be in a hurry to clean them
Scott DeLancey
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403, USA
delancey at

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