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Many ancient languages have a structure that is more complex than that of the "respective" modern languages. Modern languages like English have simpler structure, without case, gender or declination, compared to ancient languages spoken in the same area, such as Latin. Reading Latin texts, I wonder if the ordinary Roman really communicated using such complex constructions. Or perhaps everyday language was simpler than the written one?

The same is true for ancient Greek and Sanskrit. So why have these languages become simpler over time? Were the constructions we find in ancient written texts usually used in spoken language?

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    Little factoid: languages that have simple morphology tend to have more complicated syntax and periphrastic structures. Polysynthetic Languages like many American indian languages are difficult because they have very complex morphology. English and Chinese are difficult because they have complex syntax and many lexical phrases. I doubt it's true that "no language is "more simple" than other languages", but there's definitely more complexity than meets the eye in language. – Justin Olbrantz Jan 14 '14 at 17:32
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    One thing you can count on is that every language is capable of conveying anything that needs to be conveyed in the culture - it's only a question of how. This makes you wonder if "primitive" and ancient cultures might have had simpler languages than modern ones (when all things are considered), but that's thoroughly unproven. – Justin Olbrantz Jan 14 '14 at 17:36
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    "anything that needs to be conveyed in the culture" made me remember (hope it's correct and no urban myth): German adresses changed over time from "du" (second person singular) to "ihr" (second person plural) to "sie" (third person plural) for the reason of distinguishing informal and formal occasions. As soon as everybody used "ihr", aristocracy started to use "sie" to make a difference again. If this is correct, complexity seems to be added sometimes for social reasons... – virtualnobi Jan 17 '14 at 8:36
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    @Justin Olbrantz As a native Russian speaker I disagree that English has either complex syntax or morphology. If anything, it has complex phonology (vowels!) and weird spelling. – Anixx Dec 26 '17 at 9:18
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No language is "more simple" than other languages. Old English had just 2 tenses, present and past, now there are 16 of them, future and future-in-the-past forms developed over the time, the continuous aspect appeared, the perfect appeared, so the verbal system acquired much more forms than it used to have. On the other hand, the nouns lost the gender and cases. It is always like that, if something is lost, some new features appear to compensate the loss.

A good example of a language that gets more and more complicated over the course of time is Chinese. The Old Chinese had no parts of speech, no number, no tense, it was a monosyllabic isolating language. Now Chinese is developing in the direction of getting more complicated, its words are mostly two-syllable now, parts of speech appeared in it, tenses begin to appear, etc.

And some languages can become more simple during some period, and then again get more complicated. Hindi is like that, first it lost all the cases which were in Sanskrit, but later it developed a new system of cases.

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    It depends on the native language of those who study a foreign language how difficult a language seems. For Russians Latin seems simpler than English with its macabre spelling, 22 vowel phonemes, those articles and 16 tenses, while Latin has the same sounds as Russian, easy spelling, the same cases as Russian, many similar words, the endings that remind Russian ones. For Russians it's very easy to learn Polish, but it is a mind-blowing task for a native English speaker. As for evolution, note Basque or Estonian, which have as complicated grammars as they had 1000 years ago. – Yellow Sky Jan 14 '14 at 16:14
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    This is true but is not a matter of how a language is difficult to learn but the overall complexity if we quantify the amount of rules and cases (and phonemes) there are indeeds languages more complicated. Yes this is the point: ancient languages were complex but there is a trend trend towards simplicity rather complexity. – G M Jan 14 '14 at 16:26
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    Excellent answer @YellowSky. The ballooning of the English tense system from old to modern English is the first counter-example that popped into my head when reading the question. It's worth noting that it's impossible to test whether or not all languages are equally complex without a satisfactory metric for measuring the complexity of an entire language, which isn't a trivial task. – P Elliott Jan 14 '14 at 16:56
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    "No language is "more simple" than other languages" this is at the very least a controversial claim, if not outright false. There have been very scientific attempts of quantifying language complexity, and unsurprisingly, some languages rank higher, some lower. Basically, this sounds like ling 101 stuff they tell you to get the prescriptivist out of you before coming out with the real truth. Also, you directly self-contradict in the next paragraph, saying "A good example of a language that gets more and more complicated over the course of time is Chinese". – user3503 Jun 4 '14 at 12:15
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    Make up your mind - either all languages are equally simple, or older Chinese is simpler than modern Chinese. – user3503 Jun 4 '14 at 12:16
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Many modern European languages are as complex as Latin, Ancient Greek, or Sanskrit. I'd point out Lithuanian but most Slavic languages are typologically similar to the mentioned ancient ones. And yes, native speakers use all constructions their language provides (all languages change, of course, so there are archaic constructions but it has nothing to the with complexity).

BTW no human language is primitive, English has simpler morphology than Latin but it's more complex elsewhere.

  • However if you look italian is simpler than latin so is french or Pali compared to Sanskrit... – G M Jan 14 '14 at 15:59
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    I'd add that languages described as primitive in the past (native American languages) tend to have very complex grammars due to polysynthesis. Look at Quechua or Greenlandic, these languages are almost impossible to learn for speakers of Indo-European languages. – Atamiri Jan 14 '14 at 16:28
  • topologically = typologically? – TKR Jan 14 '14 at 23:40
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    @TKR Yes, of course. Thanks, iPad spell checker... – Atamiri Jan 15 '14 at 3:29
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    I think few people would object to pidgin languages being called primitive. Creoles then gain complexity over generations. – hippietrail Jan 15 '14 at 4:07
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We don't know why Latin, ancient Greek, and Sanskrit had the grammatical systems that they did, or why modern languages related to these have developed different grammatical systems.

It's difficult to measure the overall "complexity" of a language. The other answers give some idea of how people have tried to address this question, but as far as I know there is still no consensus between all linguists about whether we can meaningfully compare the complexity of different attested natural human languages. Some people have argued that all human languages are of similar complexity; other people have argued that some languages such as pidgins and creoles actually are less complicated overall than other languages.

As other people have pointed out, complexity is not only a matter of conjugations and declensions; we can also see complexity in areas like syntax or vocabulary, which might be harder to measure. However, the idea that languages that are simple inflectionally "compensate" by having more complex syntax is as far as I know not particularly well-supported, either theoretically or empirically. (If anyone does know of a compelling argument for this hypothesis, please let me know—I am certainly not an expert.)

As Atamiri pointed out, there are languages spoken in the present day that have systems of inflection that look as complicated, or more so, than the ancient Latin systems of inflection. So it does not seem to be impossible for ordinary people to speak inflectionally complex languages in the present day. This suggests that it is also not impossible that ordinary Latin speakers in the past used without difficulty some of the constructions that seem "complex" to Latin learners today. (We know that there were differences between refined and everyday Latin, but the things in refined Classical Latin that native Latin speakers had trouble with aren't necessarily the same as the things that modern non-native learners of Latin have trouble with.)

There is no obvious universal (by which I mean, worldwide and exceptionless) trend of languages developing simpler inflectional systems, although there might be some kind of non-obvious or non-universal trends along these lines. I don't think we have any strong and well-supported explanations of the possible causes of these possible trends. I think people fairly often point to things like contact between different languages or different varieties of a language, and incomplete acquisition as potential causes of "simplification" in the grammar of a language.

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Linguists have abstracted "Protoindogermanic" roots from various ancient languages of the language family. There is no direct evidence for such forms, but even the documented history of languages like ancient Greek shows significant amount of changes of its use, with many changes occuring when Greek was a world language used for communication outside of its native speaker circle (it is actually already a simplification to talk of "Greek" since it is a comparatively diverse collection of island dialects, pronunciations, forms and spellings in ancient times).

The evidence we have of older forms of various Indogermanic languages in ancient times very much suggest that the kind of fixed sentence structure built from an aggregation of clauses is a newer development, with the focus of older language use being on nominal phrasings. Prepositions tended to be optional and/or proper prefixes, with the actual meaning expressed by a much larger case system than the systems used in antique times (antique Latin used ablative and vocative cases regularly, antique Greek had vocative and remains of a locative), typically expressed by suffixes. The case system made it convenient to express meaning not through a verb structure but nominal phrases.

When verbs gained increasing mind share, they got their own share of suffixes for tenses, modes, numeri, times, person. Something like "you two should have started to be a little bit ashamed of yourself" could be expressed in a single word.

Creating utterances as a collection of heavily flected words with little requirement as to order and structure later became more rigid and sentence order and particles like prepositions became much more a part of speech that was considered correct than it were at some point of time.

As opposed to more "archaic" living language like German, English relies very little on flectation and on rather few word suffixes while depending much more on sentence order which is much more flexible in German than in English since English uses it as the main factor conveying the relation of items in a sentence.

So basically the "complex" grammar of ancient languages evolved from a state where single words were extensively modified and aggregated in order to convey complex meanings instead of synthesizing sentences with prescribed structure. The common unit of an utterance became a sentence rather than a noun or nominal phrase.

So the languages you consider complex compared to English started out simple in a different way and evolved into more complexity by adding verbs, sentence structure, prepositions and other stuff. Making much of that mandatory provided redundancy that English took opportunity of to simplify the language again eventually, throwing out the case system and other details (with the exception of their ingrained impact on some core stuff like some verb forms and pronouns).

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In some cases it seems that when a country is subject to different dominations, there is a sort of simplification of the language's morphology. The domination in most of the case create a more isolating language that allows communication between invaders and natives. I found this TED video of John McWhorter regarding the influence of viking domination on the English language very interesting. Latin, ancient Greek, and Sanskrit were languages belonged to strong "nations" and their inflection was complicated until these nations could defend them from invaders influence.

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    Latin is definitely simpler than English, in my experience. Before giving reasons for your claim you must first establish that it's true. – ShreevatsaR Jul 3 '14 at 8:28
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    @ShreevatsaR I'm comparing ancient languages to the moderns one, think about modern english and ancient english if you want. However I have already establish that latin is more complex regarding number of cases, syntax, genders and other parameters. I don't mean complex to learn but complex regarding structure. Latin is definitely more complex than english.... – G M Jul 3 '14 at 12:19
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    Latin morphology (cases, genders) is more complex than that of modern English, but the grammatical structure (syntax etc.) is much much simpler. – ShreevatsaR Jul 3 '14 at 12:35
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    @ShreevatsaR: Do you have a reliable source for that? To me, Latin syntax doesn't seem that simple and English syntax doesn't seem that complex. English is very well-studied so we know a lot about certain complicated parts of its grammar, but I don't think that constitutes evidence that English is actually notably more syntactically complex than other languages, like Latin. – ewawe Dec 29 '17 at 20:59
  • @sumelic Sorry don't have one off-hand, will try to find one (I've seen similar in reliable books). Actually an even better example than Latin is Sanskrit (mentioned in the question and answer): its morphology is even more complicated than Latin's (see the much-quoted remark by William Jones), but its syntax is rather simple (word order mostly free, and even the famous pages-long sentences have a straightforward structure). (IMO many of the more complicated examples of English syntax simply have no analogue in Latin or Sanskrit; they would have to be expressed by simpler sentences or clauses.) – ShreevatsaR Dec 29 '17 at 21:49

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