What language is the most complex?

Jun 7, 2011 by

This question is really a variation on the question we’ve most recently discussed in this blog (thanks to all the readers who took the time to post comments!): “what is the most difficult language to learn”. And neither question has a simple, straightforward answer, for the same reason: we do not have an objective measure of linguistic complexity.

In turn, this means that different areas of complexity are not commesurate. What language is more complex? One that has very exotic sounds? Agglutinative morphology? Polysynthetic syntax? Vocabulary that not cognate to other languages? How can we compare these different areas of complexity?

In terms of foreign language learning, different learners may find different areas of language easier or harder to learn. Language learning is very personal. But the overall answer to this question is elusive.

However, the general sense is that there are no languages that are much simpler, more primitive than others. And most certainly “linguistic sophistication” does not correlate with technological sophistication. It is simply not true that languages of technologically advanced peoples are more complex than those of technologically primitive peoples. Quite the opposite is often true: standardized languages of large empires are simpler because they are learned by masses of second language learners and because writing and standardization keep them from changing too quickly. In fact, “Languages and Empires” is a course I would like to develop and teach one day.

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