So, I'm wondering, is there any language that has recently (say, ~1000 years) developed complex grammar not present in its ancestor language?

I am asking for recent changes because I can imagine that mass media (I can even imagine mass media in 1016 AD) somehow prevent this process.

I'm familiar a bit with a history of Indo-European languages and they all start with overwhelmingly complex grammar (I am talking about all that inflection of PIE) and then they get rid of it. For instance, English, but also both German and Russian have way less complex grammar than that of Latin, and Latin was there like 2000 years ago.

Not precisely related observation is that if someone tells you there is a language with 70+ consonants, you can be sure that the language is from Africa or Polynesian islands or suchlike, and the fact is that the language has been probably only recently exposed to civilization.

It's very easy to get a notion that languages tend to become simpler (say, simpler to learn) with time.

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    What makes you think that English's grammar is any less complex than Latin's? As languages simplify one thing (say, inflectional morphology), they tend to complicate others (like syntax). Phonetic simplifications might start resulting into too many homophones (say, loss of syllable final -s in Spanish) and so distinctions will start to be made elsehow, adding new complications (vowel length distinctions, for instance). May 11, 2016 at 0:49
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    Actually, Polynesian languages frequently have unusually small numbers of consonants, such as Hawaiian (with 8). May 11, 2016 at 1:29
  • Caucasian languages have had gigantic consonant inventories (like 70 or so) for thousands of years. Plus lots of inflection.And somebody probly oughta mention the grammaticalization cycle.
    – jlawler
    May 11, 2016 at 15:58

1 Answer 1


A canonical example of complication in the sense that you're talking about exists in hundreds of Bantu languages. The proto-language had a relatively simple verbal inflectional system with under a dozen verb tenses ("tense" in the traditional paradigmatic sense). In many of the eastern and southern languages, this has expanded to 50+ tenses (e.g. Kuria, Haya, Shona). This came about primarily by grammaticalizing periphrastic constructions, where "go + build" becomes a future tense. Another mild example is English: we're developing negative inflections (which people talk about as "contraction" but it isn't phonological). The problem is that there isn't any objective metric of total complexity. However, if you mean "increasing the combinatorics of the inflectional system", it happens, and has a name ("grammaticalization").

Incidentally, some of the largest consonant inventories are found in Caucasian languages, such as Abkhaz.

  • Is "go+build+verb" the future tense, or is "go+build" the future tense of "build"?
    – gaeguri
    May 11, 2016 at 2:26
  • "go + V" is the future of V
    – user6726
    May 11, 2016 at 4:33
  • I think that to compare modern spoken languages with hypothetical proto-languages in terms of complexity is something that entails a high risk of circular argument. Proto-languages have been reconstructed by linguists, most of whom operate with a conscious or subconscious assumption that proto-languages were simpler or more regular than the real languages known from the present.
    – fdb
    May 11, 2016 at 10:06

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