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Review of  The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity

Reviewer: Kaius Sinnemäki
Book Title: The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity
Book Author: Östen Dahl
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Issue Number: 16.1059

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Date: Tue, 05 Apr 2005 12:19:28 +0300
From: Kaius Sinnemäki
Subject: The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity

AUTHOR: Dahl, Östen
TITLE: The Growth and Maintenance of Linguistic Complexity
SERIES: Studies in Language Companion Series 71
YEAR: 2004
PUBLISHER: John Benjamins

Kaius Sinnemäki, Department of General Linguistics, University of Helsinki,


This book is the first attempt at offering an overview of linguistic complexity
from the point of view of language change. The author studies the genesis
and preservation of complex phenomena in language. Such phenomena are
called mature and they can only exist in a language that has undergone
specific earlier stages. In describing such phenomena, Dahl applies the
notions of information theory and shows their relevance to the study of
linguistic complexity. Complexity is not seen as a measure of difficulty but
rather as an absolute and objective property of the system. It is argued that
linguistic patterns rather than whole languages have life cycles comparable
to the life cycles of organisms. The processes and their components that
give rise to mature phenomena are discussed in detail. It is also argued that
language internal and external phenomena have different kinds of effects
on language change and stability.

The book is organized in twelve chapters, one appendix, an extensive
bibliography, and indexes for languages, authors and subjects. After the
Introduction, chapters 1 to 5 build the theoretical and general background
for discussing the historical processes that lead to the development of
mature phenomena. Chapters 6 to 9 form the main content of the book
dealing with the components of maturation processes in depth. Chapter 10
is an overview of some compounding and incorporating phenomena and
chapter 11 discusses the stability of complex phenomena in language.
Chapter 12 closes the book with final discussion.

SUMMARY chapter by chapter

After a general introductory chapter, chapter 2 introduces concepts of
information theory (IT) that are relevant to the study of language change.
Originally, Shannon (1949) identified information as its "uncertainty", the
inverse of its predictability. The view of information adopted by Dahl defines
information as reduction of uncertainty. Less technically, information equals
the degree by which it increases the success of a random guess - that is
predictability. The content of information that is conveyed is not under
concern. Dahl discusses the concept of redundancy in detail and introduces
redundancy management (notion from Keller 1994) as a way of
manipulating the redundancy level of a message. Thus, redundancy may be
useful although it increases complexity. For instance, both "smart"
redundancy and spread redundancy enhance the possibility of
reconstructing a message that is damaged due to noise in the process of
transmission. Prominence management is introduced as a way of
manipulating the amount of resources spent on different parts of the
expression. Thus, components that contain large amounts of information
receive larger resources and those that are easily recoverable may be
reduced. Some parallels are also drawn between language and monetary
economy by applying the concept of inflation to language.

In chapter 3, the notions of information theory are applied to the study of
language. Complexity is defined in relation to the compressibility of a
message. The length of the shortest possible specification or description of
an object thus serves as a measure for its complexity. Dahl devotes a
lengthy discussion to the notion of emergence and shows how its use in
linguistics differs from its use in other disciplines. He also insists that
complexity should be considered as an information-theoretic notion
distinct from notions such as cost and difficulty. He then proceeds to
discuss the crucial conceptual distinctions relating to complexity: system
complexity and structural complexity. Rather than focusing on the
expressive power of language, system complexity focuses on how to
express that which can be expressed - the mapping between content and
expression. Structural complexity measures complexity at some level of
description. At the phonological level, it is also called phonetic weight. Dahl
further distinguishes choice structure from output structure and measures
the complexity of an expression as the deviation from zero output
complexity (unrestricted concatenation). The main types of deviations are
introduced as verbosity and linearity, the key notions for speaking of
complexity in the remainder of the book. A pattern is called linear if it
contains restrictions on element order or if it exhibits verbosity, that is,
larger phonetic weight than necessary from a cross-linguistic perspective.
An expression of a pattern is non-linear if it contains deviations beyond

Chapter 4 looks at language from an evolutionary perspective. Analogies
are drawn between biological entities as genetically inherited systems and
linguistic entities as non-genetically inherited systems. Dahl tries to see
what unites and distinguishes the two systems from one another. Certain
parallels are found both for genotypes and phenotypes, which correspond
loosely with the Chomskyan I-language and E-language, respectively. Other
possible parallels include the notions of replication and life cycle. Dahl
rejects two assumptions - programmed death and conditioned iteration -
that often accompany the application of the notion of life cycle in its strong
sense. He argues that the notion of a life cycle is more applicable to
linguistic patterns than to languages as wholes.

In chapter 5, Dahl focuses on certain aspects of linguistic knowledge which
are important with respect to language acquisition and use. He separates
functions from intentions and pays attention not to identify functions with
the conditions of their use. He also argues that functions of grammatical
patterns have to be described in non-intentional terms. Ritualization,
conventions, habituation, entrenchment, and repetition are also discussed
as to their relation to learning and linguistic knowledge. Dahl questions
whether entrenchment is distinct from abstraction and treats grammatical
categories analogously to fuzzy categories. At the end of the chapter, he
discusses some aspects of acquisition and storage of linguistic information
and argues that both language acquisition and language change take place
on a low level and in a piecemeal fashion.

Chapter 6 introduces and discusses the notion of maturity in depth. Mature
phenomena are those that exist as a result of specific prehistory. They
occur at the later stages of life cycles of linguistic patterns and thus exhibit
a non-zero evolutionary complexity. Dahl further discusses the
development of grammatical patterns and argues that it is patterns rather
than whole languages that undergo the stages usually assumed in
grammaticalization (free > periphrastic > affixal > fusional). He also
discusses the possibility of finding a language form at the earliest stages of
grammaticalization, but considers the purported evidence problematic and
inconclusive. The most important types of mature phenomena are listed for
each linguistic domain. Mature phenomena are found to correlate strongly
with non-linearity - and thus complexity - discussed in chapter 3. At the
end of the chapter, Dahl relates maturity to markedness and discusses the
ability of Naturalness theory and Universal Grammar in handling maturation

In chapter 7, Dahl introduces the three main components of grammatical
maturation processes - pattern spread, pattern regulation and pattern
adaptation. A pattern is said to spread when it comes to be used in new
situations. Not all pattern spread leads to grammatical maturation but it is
argued to serve as a catalyst or a trigger to other components of maturation
process. Patter regulation, on the other hand, occurs when a competition
between two patterns that are used in the same situation results in a choice
between the two. The choice may result in free variation, truce, or one
pattern winning out the competition. Competition between patterns is
shown to be a necessary precondition for the semantic and stylistic
differences between them. Dahl also introduces the cyclical theory of
grammaticalization and discusses certain problems related to it. He also
argues that directionality and its extent, rather than unidirectionality, are of
greater relevance to grammatical maturation. Two types of cases are further
observed in which we can detect the initial stages of grammatical

Chapter 8 is devoted to pattern adaptation, which is the third component of
grammatical maturation. Adaptive sound changes affect certain expression
only and they are distinguished from Neo-Grammarian sound changes,
which affect the whole lexicon. When a pattern has spread and possibly
undergone regulation, it falls subject to reduction processes by which its
phonetic weight is adjusted to fit its increased use and new role in
discourse. However, the adjustment is not always applied to its logical end -
that is, zero-marking - which the concerted scales model (e.g. Lehmann
1985) would predict. Rather, structural complexity is preserved despite
phonetic reduction, which is identified as the essence of maturation
processes in general. Dahl further discusses structural change in relation to
reanalysis and argues for its late place in the causal chain underlying
maturational processes. In addition to reductive processes, pattern
adaptation also involves tightening of an expression - a hierarchical
downgrading of an expression from phrase to word level status.

Chapter 9 introduces a process called featurization, a special kind of
development of non-linear structures in morphology and phonology.
Featurization concerns the genesis of higher-level, especially word-level
features. These non-linear structures typically arise from linear structures.
They increase abstractness, since they make the mapping between output
complexity and structural complexity less straightforward. The Word and
Paradigm model is discussed as a suitable morphological model for treating
structures such as fusion, distributed realization, portmonteau morphemes,
suppletion, syncretism, and zero marking. The model does not, however,
apply equally well to all kinds of morphology in a language. Dahl further
considers agreement as an example of a mature system that may operate
on abstract features. He rejects the view that gender would be mere
historical "junk" and suggests it functions as an error checking mechanism
analogous to checksum digits in banking. Yet, he also rejects the "content-
requirement" of Cognitive Grammar as unfalsifiable. Finally some parallels
are drawn between non-linear features in phonology and morphology.

Chapter 10 is an overview of incorporating patterns. These patterns include
traditional noun incorporation as well as noun compounding, which in
many respects behave similarly to mature patterns. After treating traditional
noun incorporation, Dahl focuses on interesting borderline cases which he
calls quasi-incorporated patterns. Subsequently, Dahl indulges in lengthy
discussion on NP-internal incorporations which range from classical noun
incorporation to the combination of titles with proper names. Further
possible incorporating patterns include the incorporation of locational or
directional adverbs, e.g. phrasal verbs and complex adpositions. The
incorporability of items is determined to depend partly on the degree of
referentiality of an expression. Some examples, such as the English
expression 'an easy to read book' are analyzed as the early stages of
possible incorporating patterns. Finally, Dahl searches for some
explanations for the nature of incorporating patterns and their place in
maturation processes. Unit accentuation seems to be a precondition for
incorporation, but only a subset of such patterns is lexicalized, possibly
through gradual accretion of certain properties.

Chapter 11 raises the question of the stability of mature features in
languages. Some possible ways of measuring stability are first discussed.
The notion of half-life - the time required for a quantity to be reduced to
half of its value - is applied from natural sciences as a measure for
estimating the stability of lexical items. This in turn serves as a basis for
estimating the probabilities of the genesis and the disappearance of
grammatical phenomena. Dahl further argues that the traditional
explanations behind grammaticalization are too favorable for the genesis
and change of grammatical patterns. The probability that an item
disappears seems to be the greatest at the early stages of
grammaticalization, not at later stages. In fact, mature phenomena, such as
the Germanic ablaut system of strong verbs and the Afro-Asiatic ablaut
system of transfixes, are astonishingly stable. When considering the causes
of language change, Dahl puts more weight on suboptimal transfer and
language contact than on regularization and internal change. There is some
evidence that complexifying events are more probable than simplifying
events and therefore languages seem to become more complex over time.
Little evidence supports the theory that languages would undergo cyclic
increase and decrease periods of grammatical complexity. Finally, Dahl
discusses whether children or adults are responsible for language change.
Rather than trying to warrant either as the sole agent of change, he tries to
see what kinds of stages of maturation processes may be attributed to
acquisition and use.

Chapter 12 closes the book with final discussion on some aspects of
maturation processes. Maturation processes are not reducible to preference
relations between possible language states such as advocated in
Naturalness theory. Different parts of maturation process also seem to be
favored by different ecological conditions: grammatical maturation is most
likely when there has been high contact but it is decreasing. Finally, Dahl
discusses the possibility for a special acquisition mechanism for mature
features in language.


Dahl's contribution to the study of linguistic complexity is unprecedented.
He offers valuable theoretical insights into how the notion of complexity
may be applied fruitfully in linguistics. Chapter 3 is probably the most
important contribution of the book to the general discussion of linguistic
complexity. Dahl connects diachronic processes with sociolinguistic realities
in a promising way and simultaneously sheds light on long-lasting debates
about the cause of phonetic changes in diachronic processes. The concept
of linguistic maturity offers an interesting perspective on
grammaticalization. The number of languages cited (117) is high for a
study of language change, reflecting the breadth of the book. The language
index with Ethnologue codes and the approximate periods of use for
extinct languages is a particular plus. The book is, however, not for a snack
while sitting in the underground, but demands one's full concentration
every second of reading it. The topic is very challenging by its very nature
and thus makes a difficult reading at times. However, I appreciate Dahl for
managing to present this difficult topic in an understandable way. In
addition, he escapes making complexity a buzz-word or an empty catch-all

There are a few drawbacks in the book. First, the title of the book is not fully
satisfying. It entitles a reading that the book treats the growth and
maintenance of linguistic complexity in roughly equal proportions.
However, only ten percent of the main text directly focuses on the aspects
of maintaining linguistic complexity. Secondly, although there were only a
handful of typographic errors, the number of errors in the indexes for
language and person is rather unfortunate. A quick inspection revealed that
many page numbers in these indexes should be n-2 (i.e. two less than the
given number). Thirdly, chapters 4 and 5 felt somewhat detached from the
main line of argumentation. Whereas chapter 10 presents a good overview
of compounding and incorporating patterns, the author could have
enhanced their relationship to the overall theme of the book. Fourthly,
although Dahl connects linguistic maturity to complexity in chapter six, this
connection could have been underlined in a stronger way throughout the
book. Fifthly, a question arises concerning the definition of verbosity as
cross-linguistic dispensability: are there any markers or categories that
would exist in all languages? If not, a language with zero verbosity would
be a language with no "surface" grammar. It is possible that such a system
could not live long and would exhibit tremendous selective disadvantages.
Finally, the view of complexity in the present volume is potentially
problematic. Measure of complexity as the length of its shortest description
comes surprisingly close to the definition of Chomsky's (1965) evaluation
measure that was refuted already in the 1960s. However, the problem may
be smaller than it seems since Dahl is not claiming that languages strive or
should strive for simplicity but is merely introducing a way of determining
zero complexity and how to measure deviations from it.

This book is worth reading now that the research for linguistic complexity
has increased substantially since the turn of the millennium (see for
instance McWhorter 2001, Kusters 2003, and Hawkins 2005). If further
developed, Dahl's methodology may be ground-breaking for the research
of complexity in language diachrony. On the whole the book merits a high
recommendation to scholars working on historical linguistics and especially
to anyone seriously interested in the study of linguistic complexity.


Chomsky, Noam 1965. Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.:
MIT Press.

Hawkins, John A. 2005. Efficiency and Complexity in Grammars. Oxford:
Oxford University Press.

Keller, Rudi 1994. On language change: the invisible hand in language.
London: Routledge.

Kusters, Wouter 2003. Linguistic complexity. The Influence of Social Change
on Verbal Inflection. LOT Dissertation Series 77. Utrecht: LOT.

Lehmann, Christian 1985. Grammaticalization: synchronic variation and
diachronic change. Lingua e Stile 20: 203-218.

McWhorter, John H. 2001. The world's simplest grammars are creole
grammars. Linguistic Typology 5 (2-3): 125-156.

Shannon, Claude E. 1949. The mathematical theory of communication. The
Bell System Technical Journal, 27: 379-423, 623-656.


Kaius Sinnemäki is currently a first year PhD student and a part-time
teacher at the Department of General Linguistics, University of Helsinki,
Finland. His previous research (MA thesis) dealt with overly complex
sentences in Finnish. Currently, he is working as a researcher in a project
on structural complexity of languages. His precise research topic is the
cross-linguistic marking of primary verbal roles and the possible
compensatory processes among these marking strategies. His research
interests include inflection and word order, system dependencies, and
complexity in language.