Languages always develop towards simplicity – except when they don’t

Somebody suggested to me recently that languages always develop towards simplicity. It is not unusual for people to think that. There is a popular opinion out there that languages start out as very complex but over time the grammar and vocabulary and pronunciation and everything becomes more simple.

First of all, any talk of complexity and simplicity assumes that we can actually define and measure what complexity and simplicity is. Mostly, when people claim that a language is simple or complex, they mean it in comparison to their first language or to some other language they already know well. I don’t know if there is a truly language-independent way to measure complexity, but let’s assume for a minute that there is.

So, do languages develop over time towards this ideal of simplicity? I tend to disagree with that. Sure, languages are always developing, but they’re not always marching straight ahead towards greater simplicity. In fact, it is not unusual for a language to become more complex over time.

One place where we can observe this is its vocabulary. Everybody would probably agree that a language that has just one word for a given concept is simpler than one that has an abundance of synonyms. But then look at a language like German: many concepts are denoted in German by a pair of synonyms, one of Latin origin and another of Germanic origin: Humanität and Menschlichkeit (humanity), Toleranz and Duldsamkeit (tolerance), Adresse and Anschrift (address), and so on. When the concepts these words denote entered the German language, they become lexicalized in two different ways. Exactly why or how it happened is irrelevant: what’s relevant is that it did happen and German speakers now have one more thing to worry about than they need: they need to decide in each case whether it’s appropriate to use the formal Latin term or the homely Germanic term. It’s an extra level of complexity which has been introduced into the language during its history. So here we have an example of how a language has developed from simpler to more complex.

Vocabulary is not the only place where we can sometimes observe a language developing towards greater complexity. It’s uncontroversial to say that English orthography is a mess. There is no clear correspondence between the way words are spelled and they way they are pronounced. It has come to be this way because of the changes in pronunciation that happened while the written version remained unchanged. So again, here is an example of a language that has developed towards greater complexity.

To my mind, a language is like an old building that has been rebuilt and extended again and again over the years. It has lots of old wiring and plumbing in it which is too complex for anybody to understand anymore, it is certainly more complex than anybody would have designed it from scratch, but it works and so people prefer not to meddle with it.

In fact, all systems that have developed over time invariably end up being more complex than they need to be. This applies to everything including old buildings, cities, living organisms, ecosystems, companies and even computer software. It is naive to believe that evolution always produces perfectly tuned-up systems. Evolution actually has a habit of re-using existing structures instead of inventing new ones, thus shlepping baggage along that sometimes introduces unnecessary inefficiencies. Language evolution is no exception.


8 thoughts on “Languages always develop towards simplicity – except when they don’t

  1. Hi there, I stumbled across this article and thought I would respond. I’m not a linguist at all. I guess I’m just a “language enthusiast.” But I would say that many of the languages of the Near East and almost all in Europe have gone through a process of simplification in grammar, but greater sophistication in vocabulary. You can base this simply on comparing their grammar or vocabulary to earlier forms in the same language.

    Lexicons increase as technology (and civilization itself) progresses, but the reduction of grammatical forms has always been interesting to me. I’ve often wondered if the building of civilizations had something to do with reducing grammatical complexity in some way. The descendants of Old Church Slavonic, Latin, Sanksrit’s relatives, Old Persian, Classical Arabic have all dropped quite a bit of grammar as time went on.

    Also, it’s interesting how these languages reached their earlier state of complexity in the first place!

    Sorry for so much blather.

  2. Well I guess you do have a point there. The examples I have chosen were all from the lexicon and from orthography but maybe I should have made more effort to find examples from grammar.

    Sure enough, some aspects of some languages have spontaneously been streamlined recently, especially English as it dropped pretty much all inflection. Still, other aspects of English have developed to be quite complex, such as the use of articles and the use of tenses.

    I have yet to see convincing evidence that language always tends towards simplicity. Until I see it, I remain convinced that language is always full of many different tendencies going in many different directions.

  3. Hi.
    I don’t have reflected much upon this particular subject, it not being my primary field of research; but still, I thought I might contribute to the debate…

    I won’t speak of “grammar”, because this term is too general and people understand it too loosely, so that it refers to too many different aspects in a language.

    1/ Orthography:
    I don’t think that orthography can be used as an example here: it is a byproduct aimed at writing down a language that is priorly spoken, and should not be considered – stricto sensu – an inherent aspect of a language. The changes occurring in orthography are consciously made and most likely dictated by a few to be imposed on the rest of a given population (think of the recent spelling reform in German, or the simplification of certain Chinese characters in China but not Taiwan, or the standardization of the French spelling produced by the Académie Française whose members had chosen a complex “etymological” spelling over a simple sound-corresponding one).

    2/ Phonetics/Phonology:
    – Take the vowels in Latin: /a/ /i/ /u/ /e/ /o/ and their long counterparts = 10 vowels.
    – In Spanish, the opposition short/long has disappeared = /a/ /i/ /u/ /e/ /o/ = 5 vowels (non counting diphthongs: moot point)
    – In French, some people in the East of France use a system of 17 vowels (including long and nasal vowels).
    So it seems that the Latin vocal system got simplified in Spanish but complexified in French.

    3/ Morphology:
    By “morphology” I mean the study of word forms (like conjugation, declension or inflection).
    An overview of Latin and French will show that French is much simpler in this respect (the declension of nouns and adjectives is a blatant instance in point). Yet, the changes did not follow the direct line of simplification: due to certain phonetic changes, some nouns have developed an irregular plural form, e.g.: cheval[-al]/chevaux[-o] (but chacal[-al]/chacals[-al]), ciel[-el]/cieux[-ø] (but miel[-el]/miels[-el]), œuf[œf]/œufs[œ] (but neuf[-œf]/neufs[-œf]).
    I believe that the main cause for morphologic complexification lies on the otherwise unrelated level of phonetic changes, so that it haphazardly yet inevitably occurs in the course of language evolution.

    4/ Grammatical categories:
    (Like tense or number, as opposed to lexical categories like nouns and verbs.)
    I’ll just state this sole example: Latin had no article, but French has 3 (“definite”, “indefinite” and “partitive”).

    • Yes, French is a great example of a language that has deviated from its parent(s) in phonology and added sounds. Do you know if they still think that is due to influence from Gaulish or some other Celtic language?

  4. The main factor in the phonetic changes in French is the Germanic invasions.
    Someone once described French to me as “the Vulgar Latin of soldiers and prostitutes tentatively spoken by Germans”.

  5. I recommend The Unfolding of Language by Guy Deutscher and The Power of Babel by John McWhorter for good explanations of how complexity arises in language, and how the processes of complexification and simplification go on simultaneously.

  6. The Unfolding of Language has been on my list for a long time. OK — I promise to read it this winter!

  7. Reblogged this on Scully's Scribbles and commented:
    Information that will hopefully help me in my conlang adventures…..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s