Proper Measurement of Linguistic Complexity (and why it matters)

Colloquium | March 16 | 3:10-5 p.m. | 370 Dwinelle Hall

 Johanna Nichols, University of California, Berkeley

 Department of Linguistics

This paper addresses what I see as gaps in cross-linguistic work on

• A measure of the full linguistic complexity of a language is
generally held to be unattainable at least with current resources, yet
cross-linguistic comparisons require some assurance of reasonably
comprehensive coverage.
• The kind of complexity that is favored by certain sociolinguistic
factors is not what is usually surveyed in studies invoking the
sociolinguistic work.
• Either the granularity of cross-linguistic complexity studies is
too coarse, or the grammatical coverage is too narrow. Phonological
and morphological complexity are very strongly inversely correlated
and form opposite worldwide frequency clines, yet surveys of just one
or the other, or both lumped together, are used to support
cross-linguistic generalizations about the distribution of complexity.
• Linguists need to be able to generate better hypotheses for
psycholinguistic and neurolinguistic work, and identify promising
targets for computational extraction of complexity figures from
• Measuring the complexity of polysynthetic languages is neglected.

I propose a tripartite metric that addresses these problems, using a
set of different assays across different parts of the grammar and
lexicon. Meeting current expectations of sustainability and
replicability, the set is reusable, revealing, granular, and (at least
mostly) amenable to computational implementation. I test its
usefulness to typology and historical linguistics with several
cross-linguistic surveys.