Apparently there is a general trend that languages lose morphological marking over time. For example, according to this question PIE had 8 noun cases (nominative, accusative, genitive, etc), Latin 5, Romance 2 or even 1. Doesn't this show that less inflection is more natural?

My question is why the early languages had many morphological distinctions at the first place. I mean, why did the old Proto-Indo-European folks invent 8 different words to call "a lion", or dozens of words for "to eat", etc. To me, it sounds more natural to call a lion a lion regardless of whether it's nominative or accusative. What analyses have been made about this?

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    Who says PIE was early? It may have been middle aged or even late but we can only look back in time a short distance in linguistics. – hippietrail Sep 20 '11 at 16:22
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    As Daniel Briggs pointed out, it's not really the case that ancient languages were more complex. This apparent regularity is true of Indo-European languages and to a limited extent of Sino-Tibetan languages, but it's false when applied to most of the other language families in the world. – JSBձոգչ Sep 20 '11 at 16:32
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    @LouisRhys I don't think it's useful to think of proto-IE as having "8 different words for 'lion' ". They had that number of ways of morphologically marking the one word. In (Modern) English we also mark words in many different ways, but instead of using morphology we use syntax. So where proto-IE was (fairly) morphologically complex, Modern English is (very) syntactically complex. – Gaston Ümlaut Nov 12 '11 at 1:50
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    @CayetanoGonçalves, but Spanish conjugation is more complex than English conjugation. In English, "I" is "I", whether it's I write, I wrote or I will write. Assuming that you mean "Escribo", it's -o, -í or -iré etc depending on the tense, mood etc. And that's just for -ir verbs. – dainichi Aug 7 '12 at 11:29
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    @hippietrail I’ve always rather thought that Old Irish-speaking children must surely not have been able to have a conversation until the age of 35 or so. I mean, there’s information packing, and then there’s Old Irish. Take a simple verb form like foloing (3sg. pres. act.), derive a reduplicated future tense from it (folil), negate it (nífóel), and add an infixed 3sg.n. object pronoun (nídóel). And that counts as ‘regular’ (right!) in Old Irish. Bah! – Janus Bahs Jacquet May 23 '15 at 15:23

10 Answers 10


Really, it depends a lot on the region of the world you're from.

The isolating nature of the English language and Chinese, and, to a slightly lesser extent, the rest of the Germanic languages, as well as the Romance languages, is certainly not a norm worldwide. Living languages, in fact, on average incorporate about as much information into their words as old indo-european languages did. Check out polysynthetic languages to see extreme examples of this.

Even so, old indo-european languages do seem to have rather complex rules, incorporating many seemingly different lexical forms, about noun inflection and verb conjugation, making them perhaps in a real sense "harder" to learn than agglutinative languages. I'll try to address why by pasting together some hypotheses and some facts.

  1. PIE may have resulted largely from the influence of a Uralic superstrate on a NW or NE Caucasian or related language, or from the influence of both on a third language. Source.

  2. PIE quickly spread far and wide, probably multiple times, leading to

    a) a premium on a modicum of mutual intelligibility for trade, concomitant with

    b) a bunch of L2 (second-language) speakers exhibiting substrate pressure in the form of phonetic changes (e.g., loss of the laryngeals) and, more importantly, grammatical changes.

  3. At the same time, there is possibly a natural cycle of isolating->agglutinative->inflecting->isolating in languages. (Every step of this cycle has been observed, although the entire cycle has never been observed.) PIE was past an agglutinative stage and fit quite squarely within the "inflecting" paradigm when it spread.

I'll mention one, perhaps rather conservative, deduction that can be drawn from this: verbal paradigms which once made sense (3) started making less sense (2b) but were kept (2a). Hence, we have to learn the principal parts of a verb when learning Greek or Latin. Most contemporaries of Proto-Indo-European probably had even richer inflecting/agglutinating structure, but probably fewer irregularities.

So many other conjectures can be formed, so I'll leave the rest of the deductions to you, since it's really hard to say that this results in any one particular effect rather than another.

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    @Anixx Does academic consensus recognize Frederik Kortlandt as a crackpot? If not, that statement is, at best, an open question, and certainly not "crap". – user2109 May 27 '13 at 9:14
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    @Anixx Please include an explanation or link to an explanation. And yes, the viability of hypotheses such as Kortlandt's, or Starostin's on Caucasian, can be difficult to evaluate since they go so far back. But it's better than having no hypothesis to discuss, which is IMO equally unuseful as having nothing to say. – Daniel Briggs Jun 2 '13 at 18:16
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    -1. PIE is very far from NE or NW Caucasian, but close to Uralic. It cannot be "Uralic influenced Cucasian" – Anixx Jun 11 '14 at 15:48
  • @Anixx Caucasian, Dravidian or the other language families that may have come into contact being very different may be an important preassure for simplification. This is already noted in the answer. – vectory Jul 26 '19 at 22:00

They seem morphologically complex to us English speakers because we speak an analytic language and don't notice how complex our syntax is. It seems bizarre to us to have umpty-ump different forms for every word, with lots of different paradigms and exceptions. And for gods sake, deponent verbs. Gimme a break! True. All true.

But consider that synthetic language speakers learn all these paradigms long before they learn to write -- if they ever do; most people in the world are illiterate, after all -- and all they have to do when they learn to write is figure out how to represent what they say and what they already understand.

They, on the other hand, go nuts when they try to learn English spelling, and get mad when they find out about English syntax -- there are just too many thousands of constructions, each with its own short list of peculiarities, including preferred predicates, presuppositions, and pronunciations. And no (or only very few, and they only recently discovered, and still controversial) regularities that can be expressed in human or programming languages. We English speakers learned all this unconsciously before we went to school, and we're blissfully unaware of it because Anglophone schools don't teach English grammar.

Try explaining to a Finn sometime, for example, why We're going shopping is OK in English, while *We're going eating isn't; and what the difference is between this go+V-ing construction and others, like

  • go and+V (Let's go and help/eat / They went and helped/ate)
  • go+V (Let's go help/eat / *They went helped/ate)

Ask any teacher of English as a non-native language. English is syntactically complex. That's the tradeoff you usually find between an analytic language like English -- where syntax does most of the grammatical work -- and a synthetic one like PIE -- where morphology does the heavy lifting. When you have more of one, you need and use less of the other; but when things change in the one, there's always the other to use instead.

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    I've always had this vague feeling that English is able to convey more subtle distinctions than other languages because of the way it uses syntactic constructions rather than morphological variations. On the "syntax->morphology" scale, is English in fact the most extreme, or are there other languages that have taken this principle further? And is there any commonly-accepted explanation for why languages differ along this axis? – FumbleFingers Mar 3 '13 at 3:26
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    Vietnamese is even more analytic than English, and so is Chinese. The usual explanation is the Grammaticalization Cycle. – jlawler Mar 3 '13 at 6:12
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    " that English is able to convey more subtle distinctions than other languages " - the sort of rubbish which only a monolingualist would spout. – fdb Mar 18 '14 at 20:59
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    @fdb: In my (non-monolingual) experience, every language has instances where it's able to (naturally) convey more subtle distinctions than the other languages I know -- so although the blanket "more" may be false, I don't think it's rubbish that there are situations where English has subtle distinctions that other languages don't (though the vice-versa is also true). – ShreevatsaR Jul 3 '14 at 8:40
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    No, English is quite analytic. Latin is a synthetic-fusional language, and its grammar has been widely used to describe English; unfortunately, this has led to many generations of anxious cluelessness about English grammar because what grammar is taught in schools is incorrect, as it is based on Latin, not English. – jlawler Sep 25 '15 at 14:33

I'm a fan of the hypothesis that Daniel Briggs brought up: the cyclical nature of verbal paradigms through time. I wish I could cite sources because I know it's out there, but I can't.

I wanted to contribute a thought: Where one language is simple, another language is complex. For instance, Chinese has tones and English has a seriously complex phonology, but both are isolating. But most polysynthetic languages have a much simpler phonology (like, say, Menominee). And phonology, too, of course goes through cycles (think Great Vowel Shift, Grimm's Law, High German Consonant Shift, et al).

With absolutely no evidence at hand to back it up, it's a neat idea to think that maybe phonological complexity and grammatical complexity cycle against each other. I feel a question brewing...

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  • Look up Latin and the Romance languages, and past tense. "to have" + verb. – kaleissin Sep 20 '11 at 20:59
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    Check out the literature on "Grammaticalization". Here's a short explanation, with an example from Latin: umich.edu/~jlawler/TheGrammaticalizationCycle.pdf. The phonological and morphosyntax systems of Latin sort of reset together, leading to the modern Romance languages. – jlawler Nov 25 '11 at 23:25
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    Hmm Georgian is polysynthetic but it's phonology is pretty complex for me. In fact I think the Caucasus region is one with a good few languages that are complex in many ways and simple in not many at all. – hippietrail May 21 '13 at 2:11
  • Lushootseed (the only polysynthetic language I'm familiar with) phonology is fairly simple, but the phonetics is very heavy -- 8 distinct voiceless velar stop phonemes, complete set of ejective stops, lateral series, plain and glottalized resonants. Details here. – jlawler Jul 21 '15 at 13:54

Romance languages are far from isolating, and Italian verbal phrases for example look more like polysynthetic constructions than syntactic structures, even though one usually write them like several words.

The sentence "glielo darò" = "I will give it to him", is actually one word, even though it is written as two.

In languages with case systems, embedding is often made by initiating the embedded phrase with a pronoun that carries the case marker, or by putting the case marker at the end of the verb. You can easily embed ad infinitum with these methods.

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  • Can you please document who considers it one word? When I studied Italian, never heard my teacher calling it so! "gli" and "lo" are markers that stand in place for the direct and indirect objects: "Scrivo una carta per Maria" (I write a letter for Mary). If it's known whom we're talking about or what I'm writing, can be abbreviated: La scrivo per Maria (write it for Mary) / Gli scrivo una lettera (Write a letter for her). Taking out both: Gliela scrivo. Spanish has the exact same construction "Escribo una carta para María" -> "se la escribo". – Joe Pineda Jan 15 '14 at 12:28
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    @JoePineda: Though I don't know if this is a commonly held position, Knut is obviously talking about them being single words phonologically. It's extremely common that phonologically and orthographically word boundaries do not coincide. It is just as common that literate people think the orthography is the one true essense of their language. Language teachers who are not also linguists are no different in this regard. In fact telling such a thing to a language student is likely to confuse them. (I don't know much Italian but I can't say I agree in that particular case.) – hippietrail Jan 18 '14 at 7:18
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    @hippietrail Oh, OK, I can agree with the "single word" categorization then, for rythmically speaking both Spanish and Italian speakers make no pauses when uttering "glieglo daró/se lo daré". Probably a denomination like "rythmic group" or the like would avoid an unnecessary discussion about just what is or is not a word. – Joe Pineda Jan 18 '14 at 14:42
  • @JoePineda: Or why not start a new question where all the discussion would then be necessary? (-: – hippietrail Jan 20 '14 at 15:51

Interesting response from Ron Maimon, although I am not sure I understand it fully. How can we be sure that proto-Indoeuropeans did not have elements embedded within other elements in a syntactic structure? Nor do I think that English is more "complex" syntactically than Greek or Latin, maybe less regular. Where there are analytic rules, they are obscure and differ spuriously between British and US speakers, as well as within British or US speakers. The word "complexity" sounds self-gratifying enough. A better word for that might be sloppiness. The fact is that proto-Indoeuropeans in a pre-literate age, had a highly inflected grammar, whose origin seems a mystery. Counter-intuitively, with the advent of schooling, languages started to become grammatically simplified. One interesting study I read was that illiterate reciters of epics from India could recite long epics from memory, whereas their children who went to school had to make notes and write everything down and had trouble in reciting these epics. So the explanation may be that illiteracy frees up certain brain resources that can be allocated to an inflected grammar among other things. That still would not explain how proto-Indoeuropean grammar became so highly inflected.

Culturally, it would cursorily appear that languages became less inflected with the introduction of large numbers of foreign speakers, e.g. in the case of ancient Latin being succeeded by less inflected Romance languages or in the creation of creoles (e.g. modern English). Overall, however, there seems a tendency, even in the emerging less-inflected languages, for scholars to use a more regular and more inflected speech than non-scholars or non-experts. There is, in contrast, also a view or trend among non-scholars that speaking in a non-inflected way is more expressive, but this sounds like some kind of conceit. There is a neurological condition when damage in the speech area induces patients who struggle to express themselves to invent new words of no known meaning. I can see how some people with natural or clinical deficits in the grammar and vocabulary of a language perceived themselves as more expressive in avoiding convention and coming up with the occasional new word, using a foreign word or an irregular expression. Occasionally it might have even sounded like poetic license of a sort and could catch on. Bizarre words like bloke, dude, funk, etc seem to belong to that department.

Ancient writers can be very much enjoyed today. Their style has been often imitated and certainly they had no problem with expressiveness, just because their language was more inflected - that is self-deception.

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    I didn't say that the modern languages are more expressive, I said they are more easily compatible with recursion. When you have inflected languages, you don't do a simple textual replacement for a word with a phrase which occupies the same structural role in the sentence, you need to do extra fiddling around. So when you have recursion there is suddenly a pressure to jettison all dongles. I noticed this as a child, in Hebrew, where all the books advocate "Shmi Ron" (name-o-mine [is] Ron), while EVERYONE really says "Ha-shem sheli Ron" (The name of me [is] Ron), even though it is longer! – Ron Maimon Mar 23 '14 at 23:22
  • In this case, I knew from direct experience why this was happening--- you sometimes say "Ha-shem shel ha-ach sheli hagadol ze Ron" (The name of the brother of-mine the-big it [is] Ron), and the "shel" construction allows for easy recursion, and makes one universal rule for all such constructions, recursive or not, while the "i" at the end doesn't work with phrases, and only works to modify single words. The general rule is easy to induct from this--- when you have people recursing all the time, they want stand-alone words and no casing or attached possessives, these make recursion hard. – Ron Maimon Mar 23 '14 at 23:25
  • Someone else claimed that English is an expressive language, perhaps because it is non-inflected, and my criticism had nothing to do with what you had said. You make some good points but it remains counter-intuitive how you go the other way around from recursion to inflection, assuming that was how the proto-Indoeuropean language developed. – Nick Mar 25 '14 at 13:50
  • You never go the other way around. There's no way proto-Indo-European was any more recursive than anything else. – Ron Maimon Mar 25 '14 at 19:01

A language that has eight case endings seems more complex than a language that has only two or none. But that is a wrong view. Case endings don`t fall from heaven as a present of God.They are personal pronouns as "him, to him, of him" or prepostions as "from to down etc". These markers were added after the word and, of course, they were shortened and tended to become irregular.

A new and simpler system was to place personal pronouns and prepositions before nouns with the advantage that they don´t become irregular.

The same is true for verb endings. They are logical particles added after the verbstem. The tendency to shortening and irregularity is much stronger as with nouns. And it is much more difficult to show how such things were constructed in detail. We can offer only hypotheses.

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Some interesting answers here but none really get at the crux of it.

Remember that civilization only really rose up around 10,000 years ago (and even then not all at once). Humans before that lived in small, isolated communities. Technological progress was slow. The languages of individual tribes were able to develop over long periods with minimal influence from their neighbors and without the need to frequently add new words to describe new technologies, new places, etc. In that environment languages were able to develop complex grammars with complex inflections for individual nouns.

Then enters civilization. Contact with other cultures and rapidly advancing technology causes the vocabularies of the languages to have to change rapidly making inventing inflections for the new words challenging (all of the speakers have to understand the inflections to communicate). Perhaps more importantly, the increased contact between cultures means that people are having to learn each others' languages. The natural result of that is a gradual simplification of the grammars as the different languages blend with each other; if you study how creole languages form, it is natural for the grammar of the creole to be more analytic in its structure than the parent languages.

So it is not that less inflection is more natural, per se. It is that complex morphologies tend only to form in environments where the culture is relatively small and isolated, which is something that has not existed in our world for a few millenia.

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The reasons for which a language may have eight different words for ‘lion’ do not vary in essence from the reasons the Inuits have fifty words for ‘snow’, and ‘functionality’ at vast can answer the question.

Vis-à-vis the various cases PIE languages used for the inflection of nouns, it is worth emphasizing that there are still very much alive languages, which much like their precursors, haven’t dropped any of those markers throughout their existence: Russian (Именительный, Родительный, Дательный, Винительный and Предложный Падеж), Greek, Albanian (albeit, the latter had dropped its Vocative Case — one out of six Cases — some four or five decades ago: Rasa Emërore, Gjinore, Dhanore, Kallëzore and Rrjedhore). The various cases merely offer a particular suffix to the noun (singular masculine/feminine/neutral ; plural masculine/feminine/neutral).

From a linguistic perspective I could not possibly think of languages in terms of ‘complexity’. Each language has its own peculiarities, whether morphologically or syntactically speaking; it rises, evolves (in accordance with its existential circumstances), and in the best case scenario is preserved for a considerably long time. While Romance languages have little to no traces of noun inflection in the various cases, they make up for it with verb conjugations in Eight (!!) different modes (i.e., Italian: Modo Indicativo, Congiuntivo, Condizionale, Imperativo, Gerundio, Infinito Presente, Participio Presente, and Participio Passato) — not to mention the Tempi Semplici and Tempi Composti for each mode.

Semitic languages, such as Hebrew, while they share none of the above characteristics, they have other peculiarities. The verbs in Hebrew, although superficially seem to have only three simple tenses, are conjugated in both singular masculine/feminine and plural masculine/feminine according to the verb root structures called בנין Binyan — Structure: Binyan Po’el; Pi’el; HitPa’el; Hif’il; Pu’al.

In conclusion, it is safe to say that when a language is not established in written, there’s more flexibility and room for it to evolve (for instance, add/drop markers), as opposed to a well established, written language, and English is a perfect example of the latter. When Dante Alighieri wanted the lady of his interest to be able to read his poem, he chose to write it especially for her in the language of the peasants of his time, rather than in the official Latin. And by doing so, he gave birth and legitimized... Italian(!!). The poem was no other than La Divina Commedia (The Divine Comedy).

I hope that explains a bit the circumstances under which languages evolve.

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I'm a programmer, when I develop a system for a project I may not have enough information to get to an efficient solution within several iterations. Often convolution will occur as new relationships are created and new abstractions are formed.. this inevitably results in a code 'refactor' which is when the 'bloated' library is reduced to a more efficient, effective and precise behaviour.

Language would surely have this same development cycle?

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    You may want to expand your answer with more details about how your coding experience may answer the original question. – bytebuster Aug 21 '13 at 21:16
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    My point was that convolution is not considered. – Jay Aug 22 '13 at 13:28

Here is a theory: Original languages had few lexical words, so it made sense to have irregular versions for different grammatical functions. Storage could simply link to the appropriate form. As the lexicon grew, these linkages (axons) would be strained to find the right form. If morphemes could be moved to the relation (the neuron body), then the lexical density would remain manageable. (a tradeoff of more dendrites but shorter axons)

This theory can only be tested indirectly. Its major assumption is that the brain stores 'data' in highly organized tree-like structures (as opposed to the messy structures that better handle 'processes'). The theory applies only to relations (typically verbs). The case structure of languages does not affect the storage paradigm; it merely increases the efficiency of communication when strict ordering allows the elision of some case marking morphemes.

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    Do you have any evidence to support your assumptions? – user6726 Mar 31 '16 at 22:56

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