Complexity of grammar

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mok-kong shen
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Complexity of grammar

Postby mok-kong shen » Thu Feb 16, 2017 4:55 pm UTC

For adults learning a 2nd language, I suppose one of the essential factors that influence the efforts of learning is the complexity of the grammar of the language. If so, what's the ranking of the popular languages with respect to that complexity? Is English grammar the least complex one?

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Soupspoon
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Re: Complexity of grammar

Postby Soupspoon » Thu Feb 16, 2017 5:20 pm UTC

English does not have arbitrary1 gendering, to complicate matters, and the - er/-ir/-re verb triad of French still seems a lot more complicated than (amongst regular verbs, in each case) the English modifications. But I think the language probably lives and dies upon its irregularities, and English's roots have provided any number of irregularities to it (not even including the spelling/pronunciation thing).

As a functional monoglot I'm not sure I can say much (certainly not in the other languages I have at times awkwardly learnt and used!). But you'd probably have to go for an artificial language like Esperanto, devoid even of the "to be" irregularity that automatically plagues (virtually?) every natural language by dint of its nature as a "gets rules of its own because it is so ubiquitous" nature.


1 If it wasn't, then there wouldn't be disagreement over what something's gender is. See also https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/cu ... it-matters

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Re: Complexity of grammar

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Feb 16, 2017 6:11 pm UTC

I don't think there's any straightforward way to quantify the complexity of a language's grammar, because more simplicity in one area is often balanced out by complexity somewhere else.
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Re: Complexity of grammar

Postby Zohar » Thu Feb 16, 2017 6:46 pm UTC

Yeah you'll mostly hear opinions, I don't think there's a specific ranking. Maybe I'm wrong. Here's an opinion though:

While English is not as complicated as some, it's still not super simple. It has many conjugations (past/present/future, simple/progressive and perfect versions of each, that's not including passive voice and variations based on singular/plural), and a lot of verbs have irregular conjugation. Not having gendered language is simpler than having it. I think prepositions are challenging in any language, so that's hard for me to quantify. Adjectives and nouns don't get conjugated though. It follows Subject Verb Object ("I love him"), and if you're used to that structure in your native language, it's going to be easier to learn.

Let's compare that to other languages I speak:

Hebrew has only past/present/future/command tenses. But, each verb root can be conjugated in up to 7 methods, depending on the verb (these conjugations offer passive/active voice, among others). Each form has singular male, singular female, plural male, plural female forms. There aren't as many irregular verbs, but there's a lot of remember. Nouns are gendered and have pluralization accordingly (based on the male pluralization convention or the female one). Adjectives have the same m/f/sing/plur conjugations. It is also a Subject Verb Object language. Prepositions are probably as challenging.

Japanese - I'm not fluent but I can talk about what I know. It has past and present, and verbs generally conjugate depending on past/present and affirmative/negative. No difference for plural/singular or male/female so that's good. Verb conjugation follows fairly static conventions (there are two irregular verbs, one large group of verbs with the exact same conjugation, and one group of verbs with similar conjugation, but still following the same rules) - much easier than English in that regard. There are A LOT of different sentence structures though, and I think it might be harder to be flexible with the sentence structure without losing accuracy, unless you know what you're doing. Writing is very difficult (three writing methods, one of which includes thousands of symbols). Language structure is Subject Object Verb, which is very different from English ("I him love"). Adjectives are conjugated similarly to verbs, too. There are specific counter words that need to be used (you use a different counter word for bottles than you would use for paper, for instance).

To me it seems like Hebrew and English have fewer rules than Japanese, but a lot more irregularities, but others would have different opinions. And I've been speaking Hebrew for almost 34 years, English for 24, and Japanese on-and-off for 7, so obviously that would skew my view as well.
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Eebster the Great
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Re: Complexity of grammar

Postby Eebster the Great » Fri Mar 03, 2017 3:38 am UTC

^ Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives don't conjugate, they decline. In English, declension is fairly straightforward, but there are complications such as personal pronouns (which are all irregular) and the innumerable irregular plural forms (e.g. "oxen"). When learning Latin, you have to learn a lot of declensions, but one you know them, there are VERY few irregular examples (just a handful, compared to hundreds in English), so in the long run, English may actually require more memorization in that respect. However, English is easily understood even if words are pluralized incorrectly ("foots" instead of "feet" will not lead to much confusion), while in a heavily inflected language, sentences might simply make no sense if too many of these errors are made. Conjugation in English is not always straightforward either. Once you learn the four Latin conjugations, there are only a few irregular words to worry about. But in English, there are again hundreds of irregular verbs. But again, mistakes here rarely lead to confusion ("swimmed" instead of "swam" is not a big deal), so if the goal is comprehensibility rather than fluency, English seems pretty good.

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Re: Complexity of grammar

Postby pogrmman » Fri Mar 03, 2017 4:17 am UTC

I actually kind of like more heavily inflected languages (then again, why would I be taking Russian if I didn't?).

I also agree that there isn't a good measure for "degree" of complexity of a language's grammar. Yeah, English grammar doesn't have nearly as many parts as other languages, but it tends to be irregular in terms of the parts it does have (that is, there are lots of exceptions).

You also have differences between things like sentence structure too.

I have a feeling that for non-native speakers, the articles in English probably get confusing, as can all the irregulars. But it is probably easier to comprehend mis-applied rules in English than in another language.

Also, if you expand this beyond grammar to the complexity of a language as a whole, I also tend to agree that there isn't one good definition of it. Even if you say English grammar is somewhat "simple", you can't deny how complex and nuanced English vocabulary can be. In any particular situation, you can use a multitude of different words. You can also make changes to your meaning by substituting a similar, but different word.

I'm not sure to what extent this applies in other languages though -- as I speak only barely conversational Spanish and a smattering of Russian.

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Re: Complexity of grammar

Postby Zohar » Fri Mar 03, 2017 1:58 pm UTC

Eebster the Great wrote:^ Nouns, pronouns, and adjectives don't conjugate, they decline.

Thanks, I never took a linguistics class, I don't even know how this type of thing is called in Hebrew. Possibly we only have one word for it for both verbs and other grammatical parts.

pogrmman wrote:I have a feeling that for non-native speakers, the articles in English probably get confusing, as can all the irregulars. But it is probably easier to comprehend mis-applied rules in English than in another language.

Articles of English as in "a/an/the"? There's parallels to that both in Hebrew and French, so I never had much of an issue with those. In Japanese, however, it acts in a very different way that I haven't quite understood yet. So I can easily see it being a challenge if you're switching from one language to another.

Even if you say English grammar is somewhat "simple", you can't deny how complex and nuanced English vocabulary can be. In any particular situation, you can use a multitude of different words. You can also make changes to your meaning by substituting a similar, but different word.

I think a lot of languages offer opportunities to such nuances. It's not just vocabulary, grammar plays a part in this as well - "The ball is red" vs. "The red thing is the ball". Sounds awkward in English, not necessarily in other languages. Number of words in a language is definitely a measure I've heard before, but I didn't often see people measure number of words in day-to-day usage, which is, of course, very different.
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