I'm from a Chinese background. I wonder why there are inflections in many languages, as compared with no inflections in Chinese. I personally suppose that a language should originate simple and easy to use. Why bother to use am/is/are when be can convey almost the same meaning? Why objective cases? Why plurals? (Plurals also complicate expression when numbers are unspecific. In programming, extra steps are needed to determine the right form to use.) Why not make it simpler especially when a language is used as a means for general communication, and make it easier for learning.

Thanks for your answers. If plurals do often convey necessary information (and in Chinese, characters such as 们, 些 are added to express plurality when necessary) and objective case may, in my view, denote the object (not to confound with the subject of the next sentence) and avoid repetitive use of the same pronouns in sentences with a clause, what about am/is/are? Is this for phonetic harmony? What about third person singular verbs?


9 Answers 9


The basic answer is "because there are". Languages work the way languages work: we can explain how something has come about in a language, but why questions are nearly always unanswerable.

Your question is about two different things: the kinds of grammatical distinction made in a language (such as plural, or objective case) and the mechanism by which these are expressed. But my answer still applies in both cases.

To take number: in all European languages, most of the time you cannot say anything without clarifying whether you are talking about one or many (in some languages, one, two or many). To speakers of Chinese, Japanese and many other languages this seems unnecessarily fussy - but while it puts an extra burden on the speaker it arguably makes the hearer's job easier (I recall when I was studying Japanese I was confused for a moment by the phrase yama no naka ni, which I translated as "in a mountain", and wondered what kind of house was inside a mountain. Of course it meant "a house in the mountains").

Conversely, in Japanese and some other languages it is almost impossible to speak without conveying the relative rank of the speaker and the hearer or people spoken about: these are built into the grammar of the language. To an English speaker this is a great complication in the language.

On inflection particularly: as a matter of fact, English has less inflection than most European languages, but this does not mean that English is necessarily "simpler" than those languages: complexity seems to appear in other ways (for example, in the use of prepositions, the idiomatic meanings of English's wide array of verbal "tenses", and in the phrasal verbs with which it abounds).

I don't know very much Chinese, but my impression is that while the lack of inflection makes some aspects of the grammar "simple", others (such as the use of aspectual particles) have their own complexity.


I'm surprised nobody mentioned the concept of grammaticalization in this context. Asking why in linguistics is almost never a good question. But grammaticalization can certainly help explain how. (See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grammaticalization).

The process through which words become morphemes is described as the following cline:

content word → grammatical word → clitic → inflectional affix

Of course, there are many questions about when and how grammaticalization can happen - particularly when it comes to encoding complex concepts like dual or evidentiality. Peter Trudgill (http://youtu.be/rjy1CkH1FOE) recently proposed a hypothesis that certain concepts like these can only be grammaticalized in languages of small communities and tend to be lost through development in the context of expansion and contact.

Also, there is no way to trace the origin of a complex morphological system like that of Slavic or Bantu languages through this process. Nor is it possible to easily account for the detail of associated phenomena like vowel harmony in Turkic languages. RMW Dixon's adaptation of the punctuated equilibrium concept can perhaps give some hints of how these things can happen (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Rise-Fall-Languages-R-Dixon-ebook/dp/B004YXVVZM).


Your question seems to assume that languages are the way they are because of conscious design by speakers. This isn't true -- speakers don't have the option to "make [the language] simpler" or "make it easier for learning". Sure, it's true that getting rid of irregular inflections like am-are-is would make English easier to learn, but no one's in a position to decree this. Kids learn the language as it exists, and deliberately changing your basic grammar as an adult is very hard. Languages aren't planned, they're the outcome of long, unconscious processes of evolution. This means that the answer to your "why" question has to be looked for in these historical processes (e.g. grammaticalization, as others have pointed out), rather than in the field of conscious human choices ("why bother", etc.).

Consider also that, by definition, there's no language that's too hard to learn. (If there were, it wouldn't survive, at least not in that form.) The complexity of inflections and the like is difficult mainly for adult second-language learners, not for child first-language learners. The human mind is capable of astonishing feats of grammatical calculation: English inflections are a piece of cake compared with the morphology of many other languages (take a look at Georgian or Mohawk sometime!). And most (not all) of this complexity is informative, adding meanings (e.g. number, tense etc.) that could otherwise not be expressed as succinctly. So the question can be put the opposite way: given the highly developed human ability to manipulate complex morphology for informative purposes, why not use this capacity to its full potential?

  • I almost wrote the same first sentence in my answer. :D
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 8:38

Think of language as a code that humans have agreed on in order to communicate with each other. A speaker encodes a thought into the language and the hearer decodes it to understand the thought of the other. In this scenario, there are two main forces competing with each other:

  1. the desire to be efficient (use as little time and effort as possible)
  2. the desire to be clear (give enough information and make it as clear as possible)

All natural languages are a compromise between these competing goals, as speakers are trying to maximize their clearness while minimising their efforts. In fact, many historical changes in languages can be attributed to either one of these two forces.

However, languages differ widely in what that compromise looks like. In some languages, a lot of information is packed into inflections, while in other languages, most information is packed into separate words, or into the syntax. You can not say that one approach is better than the other, they are just different ways of solving the same problem.

The advantage of the inflections is that they provide a very compact way of transmitting grammatical information along with the lexical items. In highly inflectional languages as Latin, it is very easy to recognize the grammatical relations between the words (e.g. what is the subject, what is the object of a sentence). At the same time, it is very compact and therefore efficient - compare any Latin text with its English translation, and you will see that the Latin text is shorter.

When there are no inflections, the same information needs to be encoded in another way - typically with auxiliary verbs, prepositions or through the word order. So while the language may be easier in one area, it will be more complex in another. Inflections are therefore one strategy (of a number of possible strategies) that languages can use to reach a suitable compromise between speaking efficiently and speaking clearly.


"what about am/is/are? Is this for phonetic harmony? What about third person singular verbs?"

One kind of answer one could give to this is psycholinguistic: what use do people make of such aspects of language? The answer is: plenty, depending on the language; not so much for specifically am/is/are. During language processing, they are often used to inform sentence interpretation by telling you who does what to whom.

In the 70s and 80s, Bates & MacWhinney conducted extensive research on what kinds of cues speakers of various languages use to figure out what a sentence means. In English, word order is a highly reliable cue; what is directly in front of the verb tends to be the agent, what is directly after it, the patient (the situation is different in intransitive sentences, passive sentences ...).

  • The cat eats the mouse.
  • The mouse eats the cake.

The second sentence talks about a very dangerous mouse!

However, in languages such as Italian and German, phrases may shift around somewhat freely within a sentence. For example, it is possible to say both

  • Der Junge isst den Kuchen.
  • Den Kuchen isst der Junge.

Both of them mean that the cake (Kuchen, here in the accusative case) is eaten by the boy (Junge, in the nominative). Here it is case that tells us what is being eaten, and what is eating, not word order. In other situations, case is a similarly unreliable cue in German. In these situations, agreement - the specific form of the verb, being dependent in form on its arguments - may be required to help you figure out who does what to whom. For example, English "is" tells you the subject is singular, so if you come across a plural noun, you know it cannot be the subject. For a German example:

  • Ich weiß, dass die Frauen Peter gehasst hat.
  • Ich weiß, dass die Frauen Peter gehasst haben.

Although verb order and overt case inflection are the same between those two, they mean different things; the first, that "women hate Peter", the second, that "Peter hates women". In the first one, the auxiliary "hat" is inflected to show that it agrees with a singular noun, Peter, so Peter must be the subject. In the second, "haben" must agree with a plural noun, Frauen.

Bates & MacWhinney demonstrated that native speakers of German rely mostly on case, speakers of English on position, speakers of Italian on agreement.

So in sum, in some languages, verb inflection can have very specific and important functions in sentence interpretation; in others, who often rely more on word order, not so much. In the specific case of the English auxiliary suppletiva am/is/are, their status as morphologically marked seems to be somewhat of a historic artefact from a time when precursors of English relied more on inflection.


MacWhinney, B., Bates, E. A., & Kliegl, R. (1984). Cue validity and sentence interpretation in English, German, and Italian. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior, 23(2), 127–150. doi:10.1016/S0022-5371(84)90093-8

  • While it is true that "Ich weiß, dass die Frauen Peter gehasst hat." could only be interpreted in the way that you indicate, the sentence is not grammatically correct. The pair "Die Frauen hat/haben Peter gehasst." would have worked.
    – Carsten S
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 13:43
  • It's correct, just unusual. Imagine it in contexts like: Wer hat die Frauen gehasst, und wer die Männer? - Ich weiß dass die Frauen Peter gehasst hat. Die Männer? Keine Ahnung. If that doesn't yet work for you, read it with rising intonation on "Frauen", and falling on "gehasst".
    – user3503
    Commented Dec 30, 2014 at 15:53

I will interpret your question as: Why does "unnecessary" complexity like inflections not disappear over time?

I think that the main reason is that the cost of learning is negligible for native speakers, the cost of change is very high for the language community (not only in learning the new version, but also the emotional cost of being disconnected with your past and your culture) and finally, languages do not naturally have the function of unifying large group of people, quite the contrary, local dialects serve to identify and ostracize outsiders quickly (where "outsiders" might be people from a neighbouring valley with a slightly different dialect).

I do not expect China to give up their crazily complicated writing system anytime soon, for the same reason: The cost of learning for native speakers seems acceptable compared to the cost of abolishing a unifying writing system that every adult has already learned, and it also serves as cultural identification point.

  • While I generally agree with you, bringing in writing systems moves the discussion to a completely different field. Barring neurological deficit or pathological isolation every human child learns to master one or more languages without apparently effort, and as others have said, the "complexity" of the language(s), whatever that may mean, has no bearing on the subject. Conversely, every human that has ever learnt to read has had to expend effort in learning to do so.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 16:17

The answer is, because inflections deliver valuable information, otherwise unavailable.

Before we get to a more detailed answer, let me emphasize an important one of the potential implications of Chomskyan linguistics, suggesting that all human languages are equally complex. This means, in particular, that a language with a simpler morphology (like Chinese, comparing to English) would more likely to have a more complicated and non-straightforward syntax.

Let's take an example:
我的 requires two words, while it's English counterpart is a single word, my. Note, no inflections yet.

In Ukrainian, the same adjective мій is declined in agreement with the object. If you take a single word, моїми, even with no object, this provides with information about plural noun and Instrumental case. You can think of an analogy that a single adjective delivers a syntax pattern: with use of my NNNs or, in Chinese, 用我的NNN们 (where NNN is a noun). (Obviously, applies to animate nouns only).

Yet another aspect. It is widely agreed (*1) that The Indo-European proto-language in its earliest stage consisted entirely of monosyllabic words (don't confuse with PIE). If that is true, an obvious conclusion would be that all kinds of agglutination — including noun/adjective declension and verb conjugation — have been derived from formerly-separate words, just like Chinese , , (as in 这些), and many others are.

If you've met Westerners who study Chinese, you have probably noticed that they often use extra words which would be normally skipped in contemporary Chinese. This happens specifically because it does matter for an English speaker whether they are talking about an apple or apples. They really think that missing plural would lose an important information.

Summarizing all above.

  • Languages use different tools to deliver information;
  • Simpler morphology requires using supplementary words in order to deliver the same amount of information;
  • Historically, old Indo-European languages did have only monosyllabic words. With the course of language development, some languages obtained morphologic agglutination. Sino-Tibetan languages remained isolating.

(*1) See, for example, Charles S. Halsey, "An Etymology of Latin and Greek"

  • 5
    The Indo-European proto-language in its earliest stage consisted entirely of monosyllabic words - this isn't "widely agreed" at all. I'm not sure what is meant by "in its earliest stage" if not PIE, but if the idea is that PIE itself derives from an isolating monosyllabic language, this is very speculative, and far from being a consensus position.
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 21:09
  • 4
    And the equicomplexity hypothesis is just that, a hypothesis, and not even a testable one until someone figures out how to measure linguistic complexity and compare different kinds of it. A lot of people assume this principle, but no one has ever established it. (I personally think it's simply wrong).
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 21:13
  • 1
    @TKR Obviously you have never tried to explain the use of English modal verbs to learners! :) Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 21:32
  • @StoneyB But are they more complex than Sanskrit noun inflections, or less? I can't see how that's even an answerable question.
    – TKR
    Commented Apr 30, 2014 at 21:40
  • 2
    Languages are equally complex in the sense that they can all be used to meet any imaginable human need. But they are not equally complex when it comes to phonology, morphology, aspectual systems, maybe even syntax, etc. - at least if you measure complexity by counting the number of units. It can, of course, be argued that a language with 15 phonemes or no inflectional morphemes will add towards communicative complexity through lack of redundancy and reliance on context for disambiguation. Commented May 1, 2014 at 6:38

Endings for inflection of verbs and nouns do not fall from the sky. People have to develop them and one may assume that inflection endings were seperate words. When these words are placed to the right of the noun or verb they tend to become shorter in the course of time and finally melt with the noun or verb.

Latin is a language that in this respect is relatively transparent. Let us look at the singular declension of rex/regis king: rex regis regi regem rege and try to show that these endings correspond with is eius ei eum eo (he, of him, to him, him, from/by him).

Accusative: reg+eum > rege.m. The dot stands for the omitted letter.

Dative: reg+ei > reg.i

Ablative: reg+eo > rege.

Genitive: reg+eius >reg.i.s

Nominatis reg+is > regis

This leads to a form regis which is nom and gen which is a bit disturbing. So most substantives of the third declension reduce the nominative to get different forms. So nom regis is reduced to regs which becomes reks written rex.

At school we have learnt these endings mechanically without a real understanding. It would be better if schools taught pupils that Latin says: king-he, king-of him, king-to him, king-him, king-by him.

A hypothesis that shows how one might imagine that verb inflexions come into being. Latin verb forms such as amamus, monemus, regimus let us suppose that the ending -mus corresponds to the personal pronoun nos, we.

So let us try to show that it is possible to derive the six endings of present tense by using the particple form monent- + the forms of the personal pronoun or the forms of esse, to be, in present tense.

moneo: monent+ego > mone.. ..o - I admonish

monemus: monent+nos > mone.. nos transformed to monemus - we admonish.

mones: monent+es > mon...es - you admonish (singular)

monestis: monent+estis > mon...estis - you admonish (plural).

monet: monent+is/est > mone.t - I consider that is/est was dropped as unnecessary - He/she/it admonishes.

monent: monent(es)+sunt > monent - Here as well sunt was dropped.

Please, dont take this as a historical outline of the evolutionary process. It is only a demonstration how these endings might have come into existence. But I think this model has some plausibility.

  • Downvoted because the history of these Latin inflections is nothing like what you describe. I know this answer is intended to explain the general process of grammaticalization, but it could still mislead the innocent into thinking that these statements about Latin are true. It would be much better to exemplify using a real-world case.
    – TKR
    Commented May 3, 2014 at 19:23
  • 1
    @TKR would be good to give your view on this or to give other good examples of grammaticalization.
    – rogermue
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 8:28
  • A good example is the Romance future, which comes from the infinitive plus a form of the verb "have" (Latin habeo). E.g. Latin amare habeo lit. "I have to love" > French aimerai "I will love", amare habes > aimeras, and so on.
    – TKR
    Commented May 5, 2014 at 0:06
  • I also take issue with "to the right of". Language, to first approximation is spoken language, which doesn't have right and left in its structure. (To second approximation, language is spoken or gestural: the latter may have right and left in its grammar, but not the way you mean it). Written language is a Johnny-come-lately with some highly idiosyncratic characteristics.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 16:21
  • How would you describe the structures in "Gallia tota divisa est in partes tres" and its English translation " All of Gaul is divided in tres parts". The differences in structure remain when you write or read or speak it.
    – rogermue
    Commented May 6, 2014 at 16:35

You are Chinese, but unfortunately I have no knowledge of Chinese. I'm wondering how in Chinese "many children" in "many children suffer from malnutrition" would be expressed. Theoretically the speakers at the dawn of language development had to say "child + many" or "many + child" . For me there is no difference whether the additional information "many" is placed before or after the noun. If placed after the noun the often used information "many" will be reduced to a short syllable in the course of time and melt with the noun and finally you get a plural marker. In linguistics a distinction is made between syntactic languages (many + child) and agglutinative languages (child+many, with "many" shortened and melted together with the noun). But basically both types work with the same elements. In one case the two words melt, and in the other case they do not.

  • In Chinese, it's expressed as "many child nutrition bad" (literally).
    – David
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 10:59
  • @David Interesting, your anwer.
    – rogermue
    Commented May 4, 2014 at 11:04

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