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November 25th, 2017

This link goes to a longish article on the complexity of sentences and changes therein. Those who are familiar with the literature of the 18th or 19th centuries, including such documents basic to the USA as the Declaration of Independence, may have noticed a difference in the length and complexity of many sentences from those periods, compared to those of the current era. The author says that there is a real difference, across not just time but also languages: it is written languages which most reliably embed clauses in each other like Russian dolls. Even oral languages which have the tools for such behavior may have likely acquired them from contact with written languages.

Does that mean purely oral languages are simpler? Nay! Though their sentences are allegedly childishly simple (examples given include "It will be possible? You will teach me. I will make bread." "He came near those boys. They were throwing spears at something then."), their complexity "erupts" elsewhere, with frighteningly complex word formation, such as in polysynthetic languages.

However, not all complexity is the same. The author claims that the word-formation form of complexity requires massive amounts of memorization, by speakers "marinating" in the language from childhood, and makes analogy to a rise in compound words in modern English whose meaning is not derivable by pattern. (Examples given: "A house boat, for example, is a boat that functions like a house, but a housecoat is a coat you wear in a house, and a housewife fits neither pattern.") Whereas syntactical complexity is generative: once learned, you can generate it, and decompose it, with equal ease and glee.

My lay grasp of linguistics is far from able to judge the accuracy of the claims. I would note though that it's not a matter of the article contrasting modern Western languages to indigenous ones like Yupik: the claim is that the earliest written languages also showed the pattern:

"According to linguist Guy Deutscher, the earliest clay tablets (about 2500 B.C.) of the ancient language Akkadian reveal few embedded clauses. The same is evidently true of the earliest stages of other ancient written languages such as Sumerian, Hittite, or Greek. Although these languages boasted a profusion of grammatical features suitable for expressing subtle nuances of meaning, and included a variety of fancy word-building techniques, they avoided complicated sentence recursion."

(Bold emphasis mine.)

So instead of recursive embedded clauses, you get long run-on sentences of chained clauses. Which rings a bell about something I found odd in translations of old Sumerian and Akkadian writing.

Finally, the article tries to link this to esoteric vs. exoteric communities. Small isolated communities can build up memory-taxing stores of word building patterns, which in turn keep the community isolated; large and diverse communities need something with clearer rules. The esoteric community needn't just be some small ancient tribe: modern scientific discourse is identified as an area where sentence complexity diminishes, while non-transparent compound nouns or phrases grow in use.

"Evidence shows that the most insular scientific communities have led the march away from elaborated sentences in favor of complex, compressed nouns: Science articles in specialist publications such as the Journal of Cell Biology contain fewer relative clauses and more noun compounds than articles in publications like Science, which target a more diverse community of scientists."

(That said, I recall a friend's advisor explaining scientific language differently: given a desire to appeal to many people for whom English is not their first language, the acts of keeping sentences simple and free of colorful idioms, and using unambiguous vocabulary, are virtues.)

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Damien Sullivan

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