La gramática más compleja

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages, and Linguistics (EHL)' started by lineaadicional, Dec 20, 2008.

  1. lineaadicional

    lineaadicional Senior Member

    Monterrey, México
    Mexico, Spanish
    Hola a los foristas. Quisiera lanzar esta encuesta pues sé que hay en nuestro medio muchos políglotas.

    Hablo ruso e inglés porque he estudiado en USA y Rusia. Español como idioma nativo es el que hablo con mayor soltura y en el aprendizaje y viajar me he topado con muchos idiomas más que aunque no hablo, pues reconozco... todos tienen ciertas dificultades fonéticas. Recuerdo que había una pregunta en este foro acerca de la pronunciación más difícil y ahora yo quiero preguntar...

    ¿Cuál creen que sea el idioma que posee la gramática más compleja y extensa?

    En ruso, por lo menos, no creo que se tenga una gramática compleja puesto que no tienen casi tiempos verbales ni artículos aunque por ese útlimo detalle puede ser complicado pero en fin, quiero comentarios y experiencias de otros.

    ¡Muchas gracias!
  2. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    NB: After a moment of deep and profound embarrassment (see posts below), I think the way of reasoning expressed in the post still stands. I hope I changed all instances of 'complete' into 'complex'.


    I have a similar question for you, if you allow me:
    Could you give alist of random features you think are 'complex', and a reason (per item) why you would include this or that feature in the list. I think that would be a good basis to continue this thread.
    And once you have finished that list, you should ask yourself questions like the ones below:

    Let's start with two features: articles and gender.

    1. You mentioned the non-existence of articles in Russian. From which I deduct that your 'most complex grammar' would need articles. But how many?
    English: a(n), the,
    Dutch: een, het, de,
    my Dutch Brabantian dialect: een, ne(n), het, de,
    I'll treat English a/an and my Brabantian ne/nen as one article. Feel free to consider them as two separate articles; it doesn't really change the line of reasoning.
    French: un, une, des, le, la, les,
    Portuguese, um, uma, uns, umas, o, os, a, as.

    Or is the lack of articles a sign of complexity?

    2. This brings us to a second feature: gender (and keep in mind only a minority of languages has genders).
    How many (grammatical) genders would your grammar need?
    0 (most languages), 2 (French, Portuguese), 4 (Dyiarbal), 10 (Navaho)

    We only have two features so far, but already a bunch of questions:
    1. French and Portuguese both have two genders, but Portuguese has more articles. Does this mean that Portuguese grammar is "more complex"?
    2. But then we have another problem: Navaho has 10 genders, but as far as I could figure out, no articles... If that would be the case, what would you do with this?
    3. Dutch has 3 genders, and only 3 articles. Portuguese resp. 2 and 8...
    4. Dutch has one indefinite article (een). My Dutch dialect has two, related to the gender of the following noun (een, ne(n). So my dialect is more complex?
    5. As far as I know, Persian doesn't have articles, yet Persian can express indefiniteness in certain cases: they can use the numeral yek and or -i.
    Same question: Is Persian grammar less complex than Dutch?

    Again, is the lack of indefinite articles a sign of complexity?

    I've got a few other features:
    1. While reading about Navaho, I found this: "There is nothing that corresponds to what are called adjectives in English"
    Is English therefore more complex than Navaho?
    Before you answer, I give you the second part of the phrase: "this adjectival function being provided by verbs"
    And now?

    2. I've learned through this forum that in Turkish one uses the particle -mI in questions:
    Hasan mı mektup yazıyor?
    Is Hasan writing a letter?
    Hasan mektup mu yazıyor?
    Is Hasan writing a letter?
    Hasan mektup yazıyor mu?
    Is Hasan writing a letter?

    Please note that in English we can use stress. For the sake of simplicity, I indicated that stress by underlining and italicising the stressed words in English wich correspond with Turkish _____-mI. If I got it well, mI (with capital I) is an abstraction to cover the various forms.

    Which grammar is more complex?
    Before you answer, please keep in mind that Turkish doesn't have articles, but it can express indefinitess (if I remember well), just to stick to our little list here.

    So far, we only dealt with 10 or so languages we more or less are familiar with, just to indicate how difficult (well, the word impossible comes to mind) it is to compare the complexity of languages.
    But the second thing you need is a list of 'all' languages. I think this one can do the job: Ethnologue: Languages of the World. here you'll find references to typologically completely different languages.
    When we (you speaker of Spanish, Russian, English and I, speaker of Dutch) have a more detailed look at let's say Turkish, Finnish, Korean, certain Native-American languages, things really start to get interesting.

    I think we can go on for a while, but I hope my point is clear: it's quite impossible to come up with 'the most complex grammar'. Even if you would come up with such a grammar, it would make me think of 42, a seemingly sensible answer which doesn't mean a thing because the question it answers is an apparently sensible one, but, au fond, deeply absurd.

    My bet is that, if you would make that exhaustive list, take everything into account, weigh every feature, decide which one to take, you'll end up with either the grammar that you think differs the most from your native language (however you're going to measure that, the catch is: you can't).

    Have fun with the list.



    PS: Ah, by the way, to answer your question: my Boechout's dialect has the most complex grammar and I'll challenge you to disprove it ;).
    Last edited: Dec 20, 2008
  3. Blacklack Senior Member

    Imho, Linea meant "complex" or "complicated" but not "complete" :)
  4. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    Oopsie, so far for my Spanish. My God, this is embarassing :eek:.
    Anyway, I have changed 'complete' into 'complex' in my post above.

    But, all in all, I don't think it really makes a huge difference, because every question following the pattern "which language is [fill in a superlative at choice or at random]" is equally unanswerable. Could it be that the basic problem with this kind of questions is that we cannot properly define the adjective/superlative?

    The first question should be: What do you mean by complex? Why?
    Second question: relative or absolute complexity? Why?
    Third question: Is there any objective way to measure it? How and why?

    Fourth question (a very personal one): what's the point of such a question? Athletics is about the fastest, strongest, [superlative] etc. Linguistics isn't.
    In athletics, we have a whole range of means to measure. It's very easy: if you run 100m in 9.00 seconds, and I need 9.01 seconds, you win, you're the fastest (at least on that occasion). I don't think that there is any serious linguist who's come up with an instrument to measure the (absolutely) [superlative] language. Should make us wonder why, no?
    I do know about comparative lists, which are related to one particular language, but that's another issue.

    Anyway, I am a bit afraid that, before we know it, we'll end up talking once again about a bunch of silly morphological features (genre "the languages with the most cases is the most complex one", "the language with the most verbal tenses is the most complex one"), or about which language we find the most difficult to learn as second learners (due to the perceived complexity, whetever we choose to understand by complexity).
    But let's not go there once again. We have enough threads about those issues already.


    Last edited: Dec 20, 2008
  5. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    I agree with Frank that it is almost impossible to tell which language really would have the most complex grammar. We've had several similar topics on EHL forum already (analytic vs. synthetic languages, about simplifying processes and yet others).

    But for what its worth a nice example of difficulties with comparing grammar, from the Slavic world:

    - Bulgarian:
    > It has more tenses than Spanish: perfect, imperfect, aorist, pluperfect, future I+II plus future of perfect and future of pluperfect tense - and Slavic verbal aspect added to that. Also there are special uses for these, e. g. an aorist which expresses that you have been a witness to the action = witness-mode vs. non-witness mode: it is all much too complicated for me to explain all those niceties of Bulgarian verbal system but I can assure you that it is extremely complex - the most complex verbal system I know. Spanish tenses are dead easy compared to that.
    > It has an article (enclitic) which may take these forms (depending on grammatical gender and number, only with male articles also according to case; I hope I have listed all possible forms): -ът -а -ят -я -та -то -те; there's no regular indefinite article but the word for 'one' could be used as such.
    > There's hardly any declension left: there's a vocative and a plural - period. Personal pronouns (and the male article, see above) still show declension according to case.

    Slovenian (most other Slavic languages are similar but I concentrate on the Slavic language I know best):
    > Tenses: there's past tense, future tense and pluperfect - period. But still there's Slavic aspect (as is in all Slavic languages) which makes this system more difficult than it looks like. But it is so much more easy than the Bulgarian one; and even though it is a system clearly different from the Spanish one (there's no 1:1-translation of perfective/imperfective aspect to Spanish tenses) one might claim that both Spanish and Slovenian system of tenses are about equally difficult. In my opinion though the 'easy' looking Slavic system with only 4 tenses plus aspect is more difficult.
    > Slovene (and Slavic languages in general except for Bulgarian and Macedonian) don't have an article. Well, some dialects have (probably or probably not due to German influence, this is disputed), but standard language doesn't.
    > But declension now is what is most important (and most complex) in Slovene (as well as in most other Slavic languages): there are 6 cases in Slovenian, other Slavic languages also have a 7th = vocative.
    > Slovene also has dual number which also is preserved in Sorbian but lost in all other Slavic languages; dual still is used in everyday speech there, it is not a fossilised feature.

    So what grammar is more complex, Bulgarian or Slovene?
    Anyway, comparing both those grammars (or Russian grammar, or any other Slavic) with Spanish grammar I would be inclined to say that Slavic grammars in general are more complex than Spanish grammar - but still I have no way of offering any 'proof': it is almost impossible to answer such a general question.

    It would be even tough to decide wether the Slovenian system of tenses, with aspect included, would be more complex than the Spanish one.
    Only if you narrow the question to e. g. declension this is very easy: declension in Spanish is more complex than in Bulgarian and much less complex than in Slovenian.

    Also Spanish numbers (with singular and plural) are probably about equally complex as Bulgarian ones and much less complex than any of those Slavic languages which have retained declension, not to speak of Slovene where there's even a dual number.

    I hope this answers your question. :)
  6. Tagarela Senior Member

    Rio de Janeiro, Brasil
    Português - Brasil

    This is one of the endless discussions of WordReference. I guess that someone has said it here already, but I excuse me to repeat it, that if we think in a child - all languages are equally difficult and complex, since there is no big difference between the time children start to speak from a language to another (at least not that I am aware of it).
    But for sure, we can try to analyse things as Frank and Sokol did... but still, this complexity is always biased on our native language. Perhaps what we can do is try to find out which language is less complex to the majority of other language groups.

    Again, this partial analysis seems good - verbal system, articles etc ... but the problem is putting them together in a equation and get a number like "Language Complexity Factor" :idea:

    But asking the question, for me, at the moment, the most complex language is Czech :rolleyes: .

    Good bye.:
  7. trance0 Senior Member


    Just a tiny correction, Slovak and Russian, for example, don`t use the vocative case anymore.
  8. palomnik Senior Member

    I think I stated this theory in another thread somewhere.

    While it is true that difficulty is in the eye of the beholder, I maintain that most languages can be broken down into two groups concerning levels of initial difficulty.

    All languages are either "piano" languages or "violin" languages.

    "Piano" languages are languages in which any idiot can spend a half hour working on it and be able to say a few things that are understandable and acceptable - like playing a little tune on the piano with two fingers. English is a piano language. So is Chinese, French, Spanish, and Japanese. That doesn't mean that these languages are necessarily easy. It just means that there are relatively less initial difficulties, except perhaps for pronunciation.

    "Violin" languages are those languages where the student has to study a considerable amount of the grammar and syntax before he can say anything comprehensible - like the time it takes to learn the violin well enough so that people can stand to listen to you. Russian, and most Slavic languages, fall into this category. So does Tamil, Navaho and (maybe) literary Arabic.

    I would say that the "violin" languages generally are the more likely to have gramaticas complejas.
  9. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Nice metaphor, Palomnik. :)

    And I agree that Slavic languages are ultimately violin languages - except for Bulgarian and Macedonian because you still are able to communicate successfully even without correct use of the complex time system.

    Well, there's still aspect but if you concentrate on present tense this is not too complicated; and if you get verbal aspect wrong misunderstandings may be the result, but many times context will allow native speakers to understand what you really meant.
    But if you get all the cases wrong (in those Slavic languages which rely hugely on declension) communication may even fail or will be at least very difficult.

    German is somewhere in-between though; with the main problem not being declension but word order and syntax - a huge problem for many learners.

    But I wouldn't go so far as to say that piano languages don't have complex grammars - they only have different ones: e. g. phrasal verbs in English, they also are part of grammar (which most beginners of English don't even realise; I certainly didn't - probably because my teachers thought that they rather belong to the lexicon than grammar).

    Well, I think your metaphor of piano and violin already provides for that: you may be quick to pick up the basics of piano, but if you want to become a master you have to work really hard on your skills, only this comes at a later stage while with violin you will have to do some very hard work right at the beginning.
  10. trance0 Senior Member

    As far as German grammar is concerned, I can say I personally find the following the most difficult: word order and syntax, rektion, aktionsart, verbal synonyms, homonyms.
  11. demalaga Member

    España castellano
    This question is impossible to reach a conclusion, for several reasons.
    One of those reason is that the languages do not have a grammar.Grammar is what grammarians do, and in some languages they have played am important role im making them more complicated. On the other side when there has been a political will they have managed to rationalise the grammar to facilitate its use by a broather mass of population.I heard this happenned with Turkish.
    Also some grammarias have developped a very complicated casuistic for some reasons maybe one of them to gain more prestige as people having a supperior knowledge above normal people.I have seen in the public lybrary a grammar of Spanish comprising two big volumes. Not only decided what was acceptable or not, but the same authours had a lot of doubts about many points.You can allways go a little deeper and a little further in any language.So no possible to decide this. But I agree with mister Palomnik that some languages are more discouraging to the foreing beginner than others. That doesnt mean that they are more difficult.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 21, 2008
  12. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    I'm sorry, but once again I beg to differ. This is an unacceptably narrow interpretation of the idea 'grammar'. You limit grammar to a written, codified set of rules, to a reference grammar or even a prescriptive grammar. I think you mix up 'grammar' with 'a grammar'.

    If languages don't have grammar whatsoever, I I I you can write want would understand mean whatever what still, no?
    If English doesn't have grammar whatsoever, there is no way of figuring out who gets the kiss in "Peter kisses Mary" and "Mary kisses Peter".
    If English doesn't have grammar whatsoever, a sentence like "I did not runned" wouldn't be perceived as incorrect, even not by native speakers of English who never saw a grammar book in their entire life.
    In the booklet Language Myths, Bauer's article "Some language have no grammar" might be quite informative in this respect.
    If you are referring to for example the, how can say, latinisation of certain languages, then I can follow you. (I am thinking about the introduction of Latin elements in Dutch grammar books in the 17th century or so. I should look it up). But then I think we're heading towards a new thread.

    I am curious to hear more about this, but preferably in a new thread.


    Last edited: Dec 21, 2008
  13. Forero Senior Member

    Houston, Texas, USA
    USA English
    Just comparing "articles" in English to "artículos" in Spanish, we can see:

    Definite = definido, approximately. One form in English (the) with pronunciation based on the next sound following. Five forms in Spanish (el, lo, los, la, las), depending on grammatical categories in the noun, express or implied, that the article governs. An exception is el as a form of la depending on the next sound (stressed a). In both languages, they are forms of the most common demonstrative adjective/pronoun in an older form of the language. Usage differs in several particulars such as lo having to be translated sometimes as how and no article for "love" as opposed to "el amor".

    Indefinite = indefinido, approximately. Three forms in English (a, an, some), four in Spanish (un, unos, una, unas), no indefinite corresponding to definite lo. The first two in English are really just variant pronunciations following the same rule as the pronunciation of the, but the choice between a(n) and some depends on number and the count-noncount distinction. In Spanish, the four forms correspond directly to the four forms of the definite article but with no exception for the initial sound of the following word. English a(n) and all the Spanish forms derive from the numeral one/uno (from PIE oino). The Spanish forms can also serve as pronouns corresponding approximately to English one, ones. Some has an unstressed pronunciation (like "s'm" or "soom") when used as an article, but is also used, always with its stressed pronunciation ("sum" rhyming with "bum") as a partitive corresponding to Spanish algún, algunos, alguna, algunas.

    I think number of categories required by the rules for forming native-like sentences might be a useful measure of complexity, at least if we can limit what we mean by "sentences" to something reasonable.

    Article categories are actually noun-phrase categories, so, for example, Spanish "masculino" and "femenino" can be considered two categories just for noun phrases rather than two for nouns and two more for articles.

    Article-affecting noun-phrase categories -

    In both English and Spanish: "singular" & "plural", initial sound of next word (for Spanish add "if it is the governed noun").
    In English only: "general" & "specific" (for love, the love); "count" & "noncount" (a people, some people).
    In Spanish only: "masculino", "feminino", & "abstracto"/"neutro" (la gente, el pueblo, lo único).

    I'll venture to say that English and Spanish articles are of comparable (roughly equal) complexity.
  14. palomnik Senior Member

    Sokol: Quite right. I would never accuse languages like Japanese or English of being "easy"; Japanese, for example, has what is probably the most complex writing system in the world, and a grammar that is considerably complicated by considerations of the social structure. As for English, even without considering the convoluted writing system there are grammatical hurdles.

    But languages like Tamil and Navaho are astounding in their grammatical complexity. I've been working on Tamil for a year now, and I have trouble getting out anything but the most simple phrases. I still can't construct an intelligible sentence with a subordinate clause in it!
  15. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    I think it is important to distinguish between "complexity" and "difficulty". Difficulty is relative, while complexity is not.

    The factors that may make a language difficult to a particular learner include:

    1. Phonology. The language may contain sounds that ones native language does not. Allophones in ones native language may be phonemes in another. The language may be tonal or have a pitch accent.

    2. Lexicon. The more two languages share vocabulary, the less words there are to learn. When a native English speaker starts to learn French most of the words will be unfamiliar, but as he progresses there are many words he does not need to learn. German, though more closely related to English than French, presents far greater difficulties. There may be some everyday words that are easy to guess at, but once you get to lesson 3 (lessons 1 and 2 having introduced words like "Mann" and "Haus") there is little help. Any native English speaker who has studied both German and French for a year or two is going to find a newspaper article in German much harder going than one in French. Indeed, a native English speaker who has learned no languages will find a German newspaper article on the economic situation impenetrable, whilst he will be able to recognise and guess correctly the meaning of many words in a French translation of the same article. Of course when looking at a French text the degree to which it can be understood depends on the register; whilst I can cope with an article in Le Monde, I cannot make head not tail of an Astérix comic. However, the fact remains that both the French and the English have, over all, a much easier time learning each other's languages than German.

    3. Grammar (Morphology and Syntax). If you speak a language where, say, nouns are invariable, varying nouns to show number or the function of a word in a sentence, is going to be regarded as a complication. The language you are learning may insist on putting the elements of a sentence in a different order. It may require the elements of a sentence to "agree" in ways that your native language does not.

    4. Orthography. Whilst not strictly a consideration, it is still a practical difficulty that needs to be overcome if you want to be able to write a language the way native speakers do or have access to the majority of texts produced by native speakers. Even if your native language uses the roman script another language that uses it may assign different values to some of the letters and more than one value to some letters. Learning a language that uses a different script does present a difficulty that needs to be overcome, but the degree of difficulty varies. The Cyrillic script as used to write Russian can be learned in an afternoon and once you have learned it you can (with one or two exceptions and provided you know where the stress comes - a slight complication!) pronounce any word you see even if you do not know its meaning. Arabic is somewhat different. It may take two afternoons to learn the script, but you cannot read an Arabic text correctly unless you know Arabic. You can assign values to each letter, but not supply the missing short vowels unless you know Arabic grammar. The difficulties of mastering Japanese writing cannot be exaggerated.

    When faced with learning a language the degree of difficulty perceived will therefore depend on the landscape. If you live in a desert, you will be disconcerted if landed in a rain forest and feel oppressed by all the trees. If you live in a rain forest and are landed in a desert you will be disconcerted by the lack of signposts. However, those who live in deserts and those who live in rain forests are equally adept at finding their way around. A native speaker of an isolating analytic language learning one that is less isolating and less analytic may consider the language encrusted with unnecessary complications and marvel at its insistence on marking words and its obsession with worrying about when an action took place. On the other hand, a speaker of a fusional synthetic language learning an isolating analytic language may feel it is maddeningly imprecise.

    I also think the following are factors in perceptions about whether a language is difficult:

    1. The degree to which one is surrounded by the language one is learning. It has to help if the language is all around you.

    2. The age at which you start learning a language and the length of time over which you learn it. Children are not troubled with ideas of difficulty. If you learn a language slowly its difficulties are learned one by one.

    3. Whether or not you have any preconceived idea that your own language is difficult for foreigners to learn. If you speak a language that few people speak and are able to communicate in a language that many speak, people are not going to learn your language partly because they have no reason to and partly because they may have difficulty in practising it if everyone insists on speaking the more widely spoken language to foreigners. The fact that no foreigners are mastering your language leads you to believe it is because it is too difficult. This can lead to...

    4. The way a language is presented. The speakers of some languages take fiendish delight in pointing out what they consider its complications. If their language has fifteen noun cases in the singular, dual and plural they will be sure to point it out. What they may forget is that the language may have a corresponding dearth of prepositions. According to my calculation Spanish has 18 words for "you" and there are 19 possibilities if you take into account that the word need not be expressed at all in some cases. If you mention that in lesson 1 to a class of pensioners on the Costa del Sol few will turn up to lesson 2.

    "Complexity" is something different. Those who have considered the question in depth have concluded that all languages are more or less equally complex and that they just differ in their areas of complexity. Whilst it may not be possible to set up satisfactory criteria for comparing the overall complexity of one language with another, it is certainly possible to take narrow aspects and compare them. A language that does not regularly mark a difference between plural and singular nouns may be said, when it comes to form, to be less complex than one that does. But, that language leaves the question of number to context and that is as much a complication as form.

    Any language needs to have a sufficient degree of complexity so that its speakers can talk about the wide range of emotions they feel and situations they find themselves in and communicate the information they need to communicate. At the other extreme, they cannot be too complex or they cannot be passed on to children. The band of complexity between the need to communicate effectively and the need to pass on a language is quite narrow and all languages fit into it.
  16. lineaadicional

    lineaadicional Senior Member

    Monterrey, México
    Mexico, Spanish
    I am not trying to make a dogma about the hardest grammar ever; I just want to weigh up this point by having a list of reasons to think like that so I can increase my little-tiny knowledge about languages...

    As an athletic gains speed by training, I read and ask to gain knowledge; to speak with authority and foundations. The same question could some people make about the millions of thesis that never will be (or have been) published: what's the point?

    I know that bunches of people read in researches about languages but this time I wanted to know something based in a personal experience with another languages or by listening non-native speakers. This is my way (doesn't have to be your way) to measure it, the personal experience =)... whatever. I do find a point to ask this, just so you know.

    A way I could see a hardship in a language would be if I measure the number of grammatical mistakes that a non-native speaker makes when he speaks, the time it takes for him to learn declensions and/or conjugations, if he uses (or stop using) articles and genders, and so on...

    For example, I studied in USA 1 year and 2 years in Moscow and:
    a) I speak Russian more fluent and faster than English.
    b) Grammatically, I speak English better than Russian.
    c) I have more accent in Russian than in English
    d) I prefer to speak Russian but I prefer to write English

    So talking about GRAMÁTICA, I believe that English is easier than Russian.

    Well. Thank's for posting.
    Last edited by a moderator: Dec 22, 2008
  17. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Two interesting points made here:
    I trust your judgement of course - and I agree that there are more complex grammars, and less complex ones.
    It is only very difficult to measure complexity, and I am sure you know much more about this than I do - as you've learnt much more languages than I.
    You are right that focus should be on complexity rather than difficulty; and I would agree that most 'mainstream' languages are about equally complex. But there certainly exist languages which are less complex and others which are more complex.
    It is only very difficult to compare them as described above with Slovenian and Bulgarian: both Slovene and Bulgarian probably are about equally complex but they both show complex structures at completely different levels (e. g. Slovenian: declension, Bulgarian: tenses).

    But what is grammar? Grammar is not only morphology and syntax - semantics and idioms usually aren't considered being grammar, and the same is true for phonetics and phonology; but I think to limit the definition of grammar to morphology and syntax is hugely simplifying and, overall, not very helpful.

    If however you think of "grammar = morphology and syntax" then of course there is no doubt that English would be less complex than Russian.
    But if you include them all I am not so sure anymore; don't forget that English has a huge lexicon; in Slavic languages much is achieved by derivative prefixes and suffixes - which are difficult to handle at the beginning but which make word formation easier as soon as you've learnt the system. While in English you have to learn each idiom through context.
    (Learning idioms by heart doesn't quite work; or didn't work for me, at least.)

    Overall, concerning English and Russian, I don't think that there's a huge difference in complexity between both of them. If you include idioms, semantics and lexicon I could even imagine that English were more complex. (But again: how to measure such things? This is very difficult to achieve.)
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2008
  18. lineaadicional

    lineaadicional Senior Member

    Monterrey, México
    Mexico, Spanish
    I wouldn't expect to be more fluent in Russian than in English. First of all, I have studied English since I was in the kinder garden and when I got in USA I was 17, then studied in Moscow when I was 23. Because of my age, I was supposed to get a good English (dumb me!). So, two years of Russian against almost 24 of total-contact with English, it's like unfair! Much more because all the time I have been talking, listening and reading English!

    And about your surprisement I didn't understand if that was a sarcasm or something like that :)

    Keep in touch.
  19. Hulalessar

    Hulalessar Senior Member

    English - England
    You are of course right that grammar is not just syntax and morphology, but I think they are the basis of grammar. However, concentrating on syntax and grammar I am not sure that that is right. If syntax deals with sentences and morphology with words, the two are not completely separate - words are after all the building bricks of sentences. In an analytic language the function of a word tends to be determined by the syntax, whilst in a synthetic language it tends to be determined by its form. And so in an analytic language syntax is more important that morphology and in a synthetic language morphology is more important than syntax. Getting your words in the right place is just as much a complication as using the right form of a word, though it is not always perceived to be.

    To give an example using English and Latin. (I remember more Latin than Russian and typing in Russian is very tedious if you do not have a Cyrillic keyboard and I just cannot write Russian in roman script without mixing the scripts - you get lots of "P's" that should be "R's".)

    The queen loves the king.

    As soon as we start we know that "queen" is the subject of the sentence. It is determined by the syntax.

    The king loves the queen.

    does not mean the same thing at all.

    In Latin "the queen loves the king" can be said in a variety of ways using the same words, one of which is:

    Regem regina amat.

    As soon as we start we know that "regem" (the accusative case of "rex" = "king") is the object of the sentence. It is determined by the morphology.

    To an English schoolboy learning Latin the complication is getting the right endings on the words. To a Roman schoolboy in a time warp learning English the complication is getting the words in the right order; he may even feel that English is less expressive than Latin, because in Latin he can put the word he wants to emphasise first. (Of course in English you can emphasise words in speech, but in writing you have to rely on italics: "The queen loves the king" or say it a different way: "It's the king the queen loves."

    It is rather like driving a car. To drive a car you need to know how to control it and the rules of the road. When cars first came out they were difficult to control, but there were few rules of the road = complex morpholgy, simple syntax. Nowadays, cars are easier to control, but the rules of the road are more complex = simple morphology, complex syntax. So, over all, is it now easier to drive than it was a hundred years ago?

    I remember my Russian teacher saying that if you cannot remember the word for "father" say "not-mother"!
  20. lineaadicional

    lineaadicional Senior Member

    Monterrey, México
    Mexico, Spanish
    ¡Eh! Sí es cierto. En ruso se puede decir: Bonito o inbonito jajaja... so easy to me!
  21. Frank06

    Frank06 Senior Member

    Nederlands / Dutch (Belgium)
    I'm sorry, I must have misread the big "¿Cuál creen que sea el idioma que posee la gramática más compleja y extensa. But as said and demonstrated before, my Spanish is below zero. But now that the goal posts are fixed...

    That would require a lot of precaution since it doesn't always say a lot about the grammatical complexity.
    One example: There are quite some people who have great difficulty pronouncing a t at the end of a word or in a word final consonant cluster (consonant + t), for example a lot of speakers of Chinese and Spanish. They have a lot of problems with the Dutch verbs (a.o. present tense of the regular verbs), at least with the pronunciation of the final t. And the regular present tense of the Dutch verbs cannot be said to be complex.
    Most students know the rules and can write down the correct forms, but they will make mistakes (grammatical mistakes?) when speaking.

    A final note: from the post I partially quoted, and from your insistence on the personal experience (and your own), I start to get the feeling that we're moving into the direction 'which language is hard to learn'. I do hope I am mistaken, if so, my apologies.
    Furthermore I should ad that I did enjoy so far the answers by Palmonik and Hulalessar very much.


  22. sokol

    sokol Senior Member

    Vienna, Austria; raised in Upper Austria
    Austrian (as opposed to Australian)
    Nice metaphor too.

    And yes, it fits with English - a "car" where you only need to turn a key to start it, but many rules on the road ahead -, and Russian - a "car" for which you will have to learn many rules at first, but during the time it takes getting to learn using the car you will pick up most rules on the road by the way, more or less unconsciously.

    It is certainly easier to "drive" a language with less complex morphology, but to be a "good driver" still might be equally difficult in both.

    But let's take German: quite easy morphology (certainly more difficult than English but much easier than Russian); quite difficult syntax which doesn't follow such strict patterns like in English but is free to a degree, though with several rules restricting choices.
    German syntax certainly is more complex than the English one, and I think that it is also more complex than Russian syntax where typically cases make sure that the meaning is clear.
    (I have however only very poor knowledge of Russian syntax - what I know best is Slovenian which, to me, has quite 'straight' syntax rules, not too difficult to learn; Croatian is an exception with some nasty rules concerning the placement of clitics but even that may be easy compared to subordinate clauses in German.)

    English syntax is actually not very complex - but very strict: if you use wrong word order, as you've described in your post, the meaning changes completely.
    In German and also in Slavic languages changes in word order may result in ungrammatical sentences but usually only lead to a shift of emphasis.

    So syntax-wise certainly English is quite strict, but less complex. German syntax though is a nightmare for many learners.
    Last edited: Dec 23, 2008
  23. trance0 Senior Member

    I second Sokol`s opinion about German syntax, it really is a nightmare. :D
  24. phosphore Senior Member

    Someone said that all languages are equally complex since they are all equally expressive. That is not completely true because among many ways to do something, one way is the simplest, by any criterion. It is true that there are many criteria but still there is one way that is the simplest by any system of criteria. All these criteria are subjective, but I think everything in our world(s) is subjective and still we have some points (or many points) we (all) consider objective, so there can be a system of objective criteria that will tell us which language is the most complex.
  25. Lugubert Senior Member

    There are many ways that languages (grammars) might appear complex to foreigners. German having been mentioned, I must confess that I had a lot of respect for its grammar from five years in high school, but when I went to work for a summer in Germany and noticed that natives made lots of grammar errors, I relaxed and became fairly fluent in no time at all.

    The multitude of noun and verb forms in Sanskrit is overwhelming. Some say that ancient Greek is even worse on verbs. And there's the Hindi way of using additional verb forms to convey niceties like if an action is happening unexpectedly or abruptly or continuously or regularily, or on whom is primarily favoured, the donor or the recipient. And then there's the numerous noun classes in several African languages, for which I don't know if there's any systematic means of assigning what word to which class.

    If you include phonetics in the grammar category, there will be many more problems, at least to adults. The retroflex sounds of Swedish, Norwegian and most languages in India are notoriously difficult to acquire for other people. Getting anywhere close to Arabic emphatic consonants requires a significant effort. Don't even try to imitate African clicks or some sets of Caucasian consonants!

    And please please somebody teach me the differences between the sets of n, r and l sounds of Dravidian languages! If you live in e.g. TN, I might even spend some serious money for a month or so to travel there from Sweden to have you get them right for me. I know of only one guy who's teaching Tamil at an academical level in Sweden, and he's good at translation etc., although doing his doctorate studies in Sanskrit, but not confident enough for teaching oral Tamil skills.

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