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In all the languages I know, at least one of the following aspects is complex/difficult:

  • Alphabet: Complex meaning a large alphabet like in Chinese.
  • Pronunciation: Complex meaning that, for example, small differences in pronunciation can lead to large differences in meaning as in Chinese, or that it is hard/impossible to infer a word's pronunciation from its spelling and vice versa as in English.
  • Grammar : Complex meaning, for example, redundant information like conjugation plus personal pronouns as in German, or a complex mapping between grammatical concepts (case, number, time, ...) and change in word forms.

However, many languages seem to be "simple" in at least one of these aspects: Romanian, for example, has a complex grammar but simple pronunciation. Chinese languages, on the other hand, are said to have simple grammar (due to what I think are called invariant lexemes) but complex pronunciation (due to the usage of tone). Hence it seems plausible that there are languages which are simple in all of these (and other) aspects.

Are there any "simple" evolved languages? And if not, why?

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    possibly complexity in grammar may compensate for simplicity in pronunciation and vice-versa... you asked about languages which are simple in all aspects.. I wonder if there are languages which are complex in all aspects, as well. – Tames Jun 23 '12 at 20:15
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    you may want to revise the "alphabet" criterion: note, for example, that although Northern Vietnamese has a much simpler writing system than Standard Chinese, it has roughly twice as many possible syllables. Mandarin actually has a pretty simple phonology, but a difficult-to-learn writing system. – user483 Jun 23 '12 at 20:31
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    There is a terminological issue worth noting here. An alphabet is a set of symbols that map onto individual sounds roughly corresponding to phonemes in a language. The Chinese writing system mentioned above is based not on an alphabet but on a set of mostly logographic characters (hanzi), where each character maps onto a syllable that usually represents a morpheme or a word. There is another writing system for Mandarin called pinyin, which is based on the Roman alphabet. The set of pinyin letters is simpler than the set of hanzi characters, but they are also not functionally equivalent. – musicallinguist Jun 24 '12 at 13:21
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    Actually there is a broader issue, which is that linguists don't consider writing systems to be part of a language proper. One can be completely fluent in a language and still be illiterate, and many languages don't even have writing systems. – musicallinguist Jun 24 '12 at 13:28
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    @hippietrail: While I had trouble getting a grasp of Romanian grammar (in fact I never managed to do so) the pronunciation was easy for me, since the mapping between spelling and pronunciation felt pretty close (in contrast to, e.g., English). I agree that depending on one's mother tongue some sounds are more difficult to pronounce than others. However, this depends on the speaker's native language, whereas a clear mapping between spelling and pronunciation seems to be a direct property of the language itself. – Florian Brucker Jun 25 '12 at 18:54
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Rotokas has a small phonetic inventory, but otherwise, like most languages of small isolated communities, the language is mind bendingly complex with respect to morphology and syntax. Piraha may have a smaller phonetic inventory, but it is tonal, so for a non-tonal language speaker, it would still be considered fairly hard to learn.

The simplest languages are the creoles. They typically do not use tone, are unlikely to have difficult phonemes (like clicks), are likely to be isolating (simple morphology) and have simple syntax. Derek Bickertons "Bastard Tongues" and McWhorter books on creoles are a good place to find more about how creoles in many senses are full languages, yet simpler than languages that were not born of a recent contact situation.

Lingua francas are also simpler than average because large numbers of people using lingua francas must speak with people who use the language as second language and this tends to put an upper limit on how many unnecessary complexities the speech community tolerates. I got this factoid from "Through the Language Glass"

Romanian and Chinese are both lingua francas (Romanian used to be latin, at which time it was a very typical lingua franca spoken over a huge area by people where it wasn't their first language-- now Romanian is slowly becoming less like a lingua franca), so if they appear simple, I would posit that it is because of the dymanics of lingua francas.

  • Thank you for your detailed answer, especially for the hints for further reading. Much appreciated! – Florian Brucker Jun 25 '12 at 19:00
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    It's misleading to say 'Romanian used to be Latin'. Like all Romance languages, Romanian is a descendant of Latin. Nor is it much of a lingua franca. – Gaston Ümlaut Jul 14 '12 at 13:21
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Malay and Indonesian (which are very similar to each other) are simple in all the respects you mentioned.

  • Alphabet: Latin alphabet without any diacritics.
  • Pronunciation: Shallow orthography, which means that there is a clear mapping between the letters and the pronunciation. No tones.
  • Grammar: no obligatory marking of numbers or tenses.

Indonesian is used as a lingua franca for a very large country, by people with many different mother tongues. As MatthewMartin mentioned, such languages are generally simpler than average.

3

Esperanto is relatively simple, as befits a planned language, and it has, for example, no indefinite article and only one definite article. Despite this relative simplicity, it still needs to be learned.

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    I think the user was talking about natural languages (although there is no explicit mention). – Alenanno Jun 24 '12 at 20:13
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    In the world of fake human-like languages, toki pona would probably be a good example of a simple language. Among programming languages brainf*k and ook! would both be simple, but interestingly, highly unreadable. – MatthewMartin Jun 24 '12 at 20:30
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Bulgarian has straightforward spelling reflecting pronounciation like in Russian but without soft consonants. It also has very little inflexions, like English.

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In my opinion, all agglutinative languages are simple to learn as a new language because of a very logical grammar (each suffix has only one meaning) and they have almost no exception.

  • Alphabet (at least Turkic and Uralic have a Latin alphabet and several specific letters)
  • Pronunciation (not so hard)
  • Grammar logical grammar (each suffix has only one meaning) and they have almost no exception.

Just a list of some agglutinative languages: * Uralic languages (Hungarian, Finnish, Estonian and Sami languages) * Mongolic languages * Turkic languages (Turkish, Azeri, Uzbek, Kazakh, Uyghur, Turkmen, Tatar, Kyrgyz, Sakha (Yakut), Bashkir, Chuvash, Afshar)

Wikipedia says that esperanto is also an agglutinative language

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    Welcome to Linguistics! This post would benefit from adding further details. The bare-word statements within may attract downvotes and criticism. Please edit it to add further relevant information — preferably with references to credible sources. – bytebuster Jan 15 '19 at 17:32
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    Uralic languages are similar to each other because they are genetically related; Uralic languages are not similar to Mongolian, beyond the tautological fact of being "agglutinative". And none of these languages is simple (the question was about simplicity, not similarity). – user6726 Jan 15 '19 at 17:35
  • @user6726 I just edited my post. (I was my mistake). In my post I don't say that the uralic language is similar to the mongol language. It was just a list of some agglutinative languages. In terms of simplicity I still think they are simple, based of thouse 3 criteria OP posted. – UserKa Jan 15 '19 at 22:07

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