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"Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men."

Col 3:23

Are All Languages Equally Complex?

It has become almost dogma in linguistics to affirm that “all languages are equally complex.” This statement is usually followed by “and capable of expressing any idea.” The second idea is logically separate from the first.

Any language can indeed express any concept or idea that its speakers care to talk about—this is a testable hypothesis. So while it is uncontroversial that all languages possess equal expressive potential, at the level of structures languages do differ widely. Once the equal complexity model is adopted, a number of further assumptions follow, for example: “A language which appears simple in some respects is likely to be more complex in others.

”This often popularly construed as the notion that if a language simplifies one part of its grammar it necessarily gains some complexity elsewhere, as if regulated by a thermostat.

Worlds within Words 209 Such claims are problematic, if only because they remain hard to test empirically. Most of the world’s languages remain undescribed or underdescribed. We lack any agreed-upon unit for measuring complexity, especially across distinct domains such as vowel pronunciation and sentence building.

And complexity arises from many disparate factors, starting certainly with the innate ability of the human brain, but also including the size of the speech community, the level of contact among speakers, the range of uses of a language, the modality (spoken or signed), and intricate historical processes of language change.

Yet one finds the ‘equal’ complexity idea in textbooks, blogs, introductory linguistics classes, and the like. As evidence, it is noted that any neurologically normal human child can learn any human language when raised among people speaking that language.

An Icelandic child raised by Swahili parents will come to speak flawless Swahili, and vice versa. Studies comparing acquisition rates of children learning different languages show slight differences for certain kinds of structures, but all kids still all turn out to be fluent speakers of their native tongue by age 7 or so.

The sentiment behind this argument is noble: of course, we should not regard any other people or culture as primitive or any more or less intelligent than ourselves. Ultimately, statements about the equal complexity of languages may owe more to political correctness than they do to any empirical evidence.

However, a fundamental quantitative problem with the claim remains: we have no established way to measure complexity within a single language or across multiple languages.

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