I have read about animal communication, particularly in mammals and historical evidence in early hominoids. Naturally, I am always amazed how much information species like dolphins and orcas can actually get across. Yet at the same time, I realize modern humans share far more complex and intricate information much more rapidly. For instance, although Koko the ape could express feelings and thoughts in videos I saw, she can't comprehend the idea of a derivative or an integral. She also doesn't have the emotional attachment to stories that humans do, which forms the basis for our books, movies, theater, sports, romance etc. So clearly there are differences in the amount of information other species can express and their ability to use language as a platform for thought.

Do linguists rank languages on some sort of complexity scale that allows us to measure how advanced a given language is? Does this allow us to identify "protolanguages" as I have heard them called and better understand how our own language capacity evolved?

  • 6
    No, not for whole languages. Linguists might compare the levels of complexity of various subsystems in languages, but they don't rank whole languages. This was tried when it was thought there were 'primitive' languages in some parts of the world, but it never worked as they kept finding complexity in every language. Every human language is, in principle, able to express anything that any other human language can express. – Gaston Ümlaut Jan 20 '15 at 1:11
  • I added some Wikipedia links but there's also a Wikipedia article on "animal language". – hippietrail Jan 21 '15 at 15:22

The idea of a language being "more advanced" is rejected by linguists. The problem is that there is no objectively justified standard against which languages can be compared -- there's no goal that languages should be striving towards. Languages are indistinguishable in terms of what ideas that allow you to convey, and even though Saami might seem to be more advanced than English in having a single word meaning 2 year old male reindeer, English is just as good in its ability to express ideas, and it may just take a few more words.

There is actually some interest in developing a scientific notion of linguistic complexity, but there isn't any way to make meaningful statements about complexity of a language. For example, some Khoisan languages have an awful lot of consonants (over a gross), and some pretty unusual ones, so that might seem to be pretty complex. But, their systems are pretty symmetrical, so you just have to get the hang of the different places of articulation, and the different releases, so then it's kind of simple. Words in Khoisan are pretty simple -- one or two syllables, and not a big elaborate inflectional system like in Finnish. But Finnish isn't really all that complex, since the changes in the inflectional system are pretty regular, much more regular than Swedish. So while we might some day be able to say something meaningful about complexity (almost certainly complexity if a specific domain, not overall complexity), a scale of complexity doesn't exist.

The idea of a "proto-language", BTW, refers to a hypothesis about the nature of a language that was never recorded. There are documents for Old English, Old Saxon, Old Norse, Gothic and Old High German, and these allow us to reconstruct properties of what language ("proto-Germanic") these Germanic languages descended from.


It's very plausible that human languages are more complex than non-human animal languages. Human languages have grammars which are sufficiently complex that we don't yet understand them very well, while other animal languages don't really seem to have grammatical systems. But you meant comparing complexity within the human species, rather than across species? (It wasn't clear to me, reading your question.) Then no, as the other answers have said.


If you mean full-blown natural languages, the answer is negative unless you introduce a notion of advanceness which will handicap some languages with respect to others (e.g. by setting (the length of) a written language tradition as a criterion)

If you mean natural languages as such, the answer is affirmative. Pidgins are by definition less advanced than full-blown natural languages


For sure, there was an advance in linguistic capabilities from great apes to humans, and this advance is determined by some genes. One gene, termed "The language gene" in popular science and FOXP2 in genetics is already identified. Its protein differs in two positions between humans and the other mammals (it is the same for great apes and mice!). The mutation is shared by Neanderthalers and modern men, therefore it is at least 300 thousand years old.

There may be differences in linguistic capabilities between modern men, but there is a strong levelling effect: Assume, that a minority of men has some advanced linguistic capabilities and they can communicate more effectively with each other. They need to communicate with the majority of people lacking those advanced capabilities using the majorities' language, so they cannot take profit from their mutations. It is unlikely that speech communities with advanced linguistic capabilities can form and will be identified by linguists.


I don't think anything we know about communication in non-human species can tell us a lot about differences between human languages. Ultimately, a (human) language is as nuanced as it needs to be in purely real-life terms, and there's essentially no limit to any language's power of generating new concepts using just metaphors, synecdoches and suchlike mechanisms that are natural to human associative thinking. "Derivative", etymologised all the way back, uses the metaphor of drawing water from a stream (Latin rivus), while "integral" refers to something that is "untouched" (in-teger), i.e. whole. Both are everyday ideas that, in their literal sense, could probably be expressed in the earliest human languages. If there was a sudden explosion in the understanding of mathematics in the Stone Age, this just shows how quickly the language would catch up. And we keep doing that — a computer's input devices are called, essentially, "a flat piece of wood with things used for closing" and "a kind of small mammal". We refer to supposed alien spacecraft as "flying things containing something salted". No matter how far we stray from the literal, our basic building blocks of meaning are still mostly concepts that would be understood by a caveman. So I don't really think "advanced" can be a property of a language as such, rather than the culture using it — and again, different cultures are "advanced" in different things.


Some languages make it more difficult (impractical, though maybe not impossible) to express some concepts.

For example, most European languages have a wide range of tenses for verbs, including conditional tenses, while some other languages are missing these (Mandarin Chinese is the biggest example) - in some languages the workaround for a missing future tense is to add a word like 'tomorrow' - that may work fine in normal conversation, but it may be impractical (too many extra words needed) to work around a missing conditional tense or a missing future-perfect tense, so people often rely on context, which can be ambiguous.

Also, some languages don't easily express whether something is a subject or object (or other cases) - Latin and German modify articles or word endings to show their case, and some other languages (e.g. English) do it in other ways, often by position, but some languages appear not to worry about it (so the context is critical).

This makes me wonder if some complex or technical ideas, especially involving relative timings or conditionality, are more difficult to express clearly (at least without excessive verbosity) in some languages than others. That doesn't mean that the language isn't "fit for purpose", but it might have implications for which purposes the language is a good fit for. For example, complex legal/contractual or philosophical concepts could be tricky to express precisely.

I'm interested in the question of whether such limitations would extend to our inner thoughts - if my language can't easily or precisely communicate some ideas, does that mean I can't easily think those ideas? Or can I think them but not easily put them into words - and would I be aware of that limitation? Sometimes it takes me a minute to work out how to express something that I'm thinking - might that be easier, in some cases, if I was thinking in a different language, or is it simply a question of 'getting my thoughts organised' (turning half-baked ideas into something more precise)?

  • 1
    'don't easily express whether something is a subject or object' - grammatical relations are not primitive semantic concepts though. They are based on conflation of semantic roles and pragmatic factors like topicality, and differ from language to language. Languages argued to lack grammatical relations express the semantic or pragmatic concepts (or both) directly, instead of through grammatical relations. – WavesWashSands Dec 14 '17 at 16:54

Your Answer

By clicking "Post Your Answer", you acknowledge that you have read our updated terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy, and that your continued use of the website is subject to these policies.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.