The surprising forces influencing the complexity of the language we speak and write

Julie Sedivy writes: “[[[When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people [to dissolve the political bands [which have connected them with another]] and [to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station [to which the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them]]], a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires [that they should declare the causes [which impel them to the separation]]].”
— Declaration of Independence, opening sentence

An iconic sentence, this. But how did it ever make its way into the world? At 71 words, it is composed of eight separate clauses, each anchored by its own verb, nested within one another in various arrangements. The main clause (a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires …) hangs suspended above a 50-word subordinate clause that must first be unfurled. Like an intricate equation, the sentence exudes a mathematical sophistication, turning its face toward infinitude.

To some linguists, Noam Chomsky among them, sentences like these illustrate an essential property of human language. These scientists have argued that recursion, a technique that allows chunks of language such as sentences to be embedded inside each other (with no hard limit on the number of nestings) is a universal human ability, perhaps even the one uniquely human ability that supports language. It’s what allows us to create—literally—an infinite variety of novel sentences out of a limited inventory of words.

But that leads to a curious puzzle: Complex sentences are not ubiquitous among the world’s languages. Many languages have little use for them. They prefer to string together simple clauses. They may even lack certain words such as relative pronouns that and which or connectors like if, despite, and although—these words make it possible to link clauses together into larger sentences. Allegedly, the Pirahã language along the Maici River of Brazil lacks recursion altogether. According to linguist Dan Everett, Pirahã speakers avoid linguistic nesting of all kinds, even in structures such as John’s brother’s house. (Instead, they would say something like: Brother’s house. John has a brother. It is the same one.)

This can’t be pinned on biological evolution. All evidence suggests that humans around the world are born with more or less the same brains. Abundant childhood exposure to a language with layered sentences practically guarantees their mastery. Even adult Pirahã speakers, who have remained unusually isolated from European languages, pick up the trick of complex syntax, provided that they spend enough time interacting with speakers of Brazilian Portuguese, a language that offers an adequate diet of embedded structures.

More useful is the notion of linguistic evolution. It’s the languages themselves, rather than the brains, that have evolved along different paths. And just as different species are shaped by adaptations to specific ecological niches, certain linguistic features—like sentence complexity—survive and thrive under some circumstances, whereas other features take hold and spread within very different niches. [Continue reading…]

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  1. Dieter Heymann says:

    Numbers is one aspect of languages which almost never receives attention yet we use numbers numerous times every day. Here is a language change which no one has yet been able to explain to me. In “Pride and Prejudice” for example Elizabeth Bennett states “I am not yet one and twenty”. One and twenty has Germanic roots. Today Elisabeth would say “I am not yet twenty one” which has Latin language roots. That change happened in the course of the 19th century. Why? Efficiency? Nine letters vs. twelve letters?

  2. Paul Woodward says:

    I’m not a linguist, but my guess is that these kinds of changes rarely have a rational basis but are simply driven by the capricious waves of usage — one style of usage fell into disuse while another became prevalent. Prevalence probably has more to do with the who than the why, which is to say if people/institutions etc in influential positions adopt a particular form then because most people generally align themselves with power, imitation follows.

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