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Many efforts have been made to construct simpler languages that are easier to learn (e.g. Esperanto), and relatively simple language arise naturally in the form of pidgins and creoles, when people without a common language struggle to cobble one together (a pidgin) that eventually turns into a full natural language.

But, suppose that there was a language much more complex than any other previously known to humanity. One with almost all known phonemes and tones, with both logograms, syllabic and simpler phonetic scripts (like Japanese), with most kinds of tenses and genders every known, with a very large set of words, and so on (i.e. a "kitchen sink" language), i.e. a language that rather than trading off elaborations in one area for another (as most real world languages do) simply are more elaborate in almost all respects.

For example, high literary Latin in the Roman Empire was more elaborate or similarly elaborate in almost all respects than almost all of the immediate successor Romance languages.

In what kind of society/conditions would such a language tend to arise in?

Could such a language arise naturally? And, if not, what might motivate someone to construct such a language (perhaps from one that was already complex)? Would such a language necessarily have are fully elaborated "elite" register and then a "broken" or "common" register used in other settings?

For example, what kind of historical or societal forces caused Cantonese to have a great many classifiers, while Austronesian languages originating with the aboriginal peoples of Taiwan had far fewer?

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm not saying that I don't think it would be possible, and historical examples of the kinds of societies that spawn complex languages would be helpful. I am thinking that this language would be much more complex linguistically than any existing language by many orders of magnitude. The goal is to have an origin story and realistic context for such a language. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 3 '18 at 17:26
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    $\begingroup$ (1) There is no relationship whatsoever between a language and the writing systems used for writing it. For example, Chinese languages are usually written with the infernal Chinese logograms, but there is one Chinese language, Dungan, which is written with the plain boring Cyrillic alphabet. (Fun fact: Dungan is actually closely related to Modern Standard Mandarin!) (2) There are barriers to unbridled complexity. (3) Nominal classes are called genders if there are two or three of them; if there are more, they are called just nominal classes. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 3 '18 at 17:33
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    $\begingroup$ Is this question related to worldbuilding? I think you should ask this on SE constructed languages. A similar answer may have already been asked there and you will get better answers on that site. $\endgroup$ – John Locke Sep 3 '18 at 18:03
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    $\begingroup$ Please read our meta posts about high concept questions and open-ended questions. The problem with questions like this is they are not objective and you've provided no criteria for judging a best answer. Please remember that SE is not a discussion forum. $\endgroup$ – JBH Sep 3 '18 at 18:24
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    $\begingroup$ @JohnLocke I'm almost more interested in the natural language aspect than the conlang aspect which prompted me to ask it here. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 4 '18 at 1:10
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The key problem with a kitchen-sink language arising naturally is that native speakers have to learn the language, within a finite time and with a finite amount of input.

A baby can learn how to pronounce the morphological building blocks of a language like English with its complex syllables, or Hawaiian with its many-syllable morphemes, or Thai with its tones. But a language that had all three might well take too long for any but the very brightest or best-taught children to learn. In which case the vast majority of your language community doesn't grow up learning your language, but a pidgin derived from it, and that becomes the new language.

And similarly, a child can learn the complex word-order rules and unbounded auxiliary chains of English, or the complex inflection and agreement system of Latin, but a language with both might take too long to learn. You have have two distinct inflection systems, like German, but not if they're both as complex as Latin.


On top of that constraint, there's the fact that you don't get any benefits.

When a language becomes more complex on one axis or another, that may make it easier or shorter to express some ideas, or it may add redundancy that makes the language easier to share with a wide range of people (including distant rural villagers with weird accents, old people losing their high frequencies, etc.). But there are quickly diminishing returns.

So, you have no pressure but random drift toward kitchen sink languages, and severe pretty away from them.

Which explains why human languages all seem to end up around the same "total complexity". As hard a thing as that is to quantify, it seems to be intuitively true—languages really do seem to pull off some kind of balancing act, where they lose complexity in one area as fast as they gain it in another.


So, how do you get around that problem? Here are some speculative ideas:

  1. Human children are capable, to a certain extent, of learning two languages. Your society has (probably accidentally) managed to coopt bilingual learning into learning two registers or two sets of facilities or whatever of the same language, allowing more room for complexity.

  2. In your world, the Flynn effect is real and long-term, people are getting smarter generation by generation. And one relatively self-contained culture was ahead of the curve. After centuries with the constraints on learning their language weakened, they've developed a more complex language. (Be careful about the implications here—if you successfully avoid writing a neo-Nazi racist fantasy, you might find that you've written a comic-book silly society instead.) Maybe it's just nutrition, or not eating lead, so the rest of the world has mostly caught up with them in the last half century, but 50 years won't change a language as much as 500.

  3. Your culture has entirely separate languages for religion, politics, hunting… anything most other cultures have jargons for, they have a separate language for instead. Those separate languages tend to be simple, because they have to be learnable via adult second-language acquisition. But the main language has less stuff to talk about, which makes it easier to learn, which means there's more room to make it complex.

  4. Only 10% of your culture really does speak the official language, and the other 90% speak the vulgar language. The languages have diverged for long enough to be no longer mutually comprehensible, even though they're clearly related. The vulgar is about as complex as any other human language, but the official language is a kitchen sink language. How do you maintain that beyond a handful of generations? By taking test-driven meritocracy to an extreme. For centuries, they've been testing children every year after birth. Most people stay with their families pretty late, sometimes until adulthood, but the ones who are truly exceptional (or the not-truly-exceptional children of the rulers, or the ones who are as exceptional as their parents but in different ways…) may be taken away as young as 1 or 2. The children who are chosen to be the next generation's rulers, generals, high priests, philosophers, and engineers are the ones who aced the linguistic ability tests at 2 years old, so they really are, in general, capable of learning a language that's too complex for other children. (This has some interesting effects on the sound inventory, syllable structure, etc. of both languages, because they have to sound pretty similar to a first-year infant for the testing to make any sense…)

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    $\begingroup$ I like option 4 a lot. It actually has close precedent in archaic Korean where there is a completely different set of words that apply to ordinary concepts when applied in a royal context, and isn't far from the concept of "mother-in-law" languages found in Dyirbal, an Aboriginal Australian language. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 5 '18 at 0:18
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    $\begingroup$ @ohwilleke From what I understand, Korean royal speech is just another speech level like the others, closely related to the formal level, and it's actually simpler (using a restricted subset of the same syntax, because other constructions are not high-falutin' enough), with on the order of dozens of replacement words. If so, what I'm thinking of is much more radical. (Also, arguably, pretty implausible, even if my Chinese-civil-service-turned-up-to-11 society could exist… but still maybe fun to write and/or read about.) $\endgroup$ – abarnert Sep 5 '18 at 1:03
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    $\begingroup$ Your assessment of Korean royal speech is about right, but it still gets at the concept, which I like a lot. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 5 '18 at 1:16
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The key would be that it needs to resonate with the people who speak it.

One challenge I would make is that you will find the term "complex" to be a loaded one. What is complex to one person is simple to another. For a real-life example of the mismosh you talk about, consider English. English is famously difficult to learn as a second language because it's cobbled together from so many different languages with so many rules. And yet it is the lingua franca of the world today.

Likewise, it's considered to be very difficult for a native English speaker to learn Chinese because our ears literally don't hear the distinctions that matter between their phonemes. And yet over a billion people speak one of the many Chinese languages.

Probably the closest language I know of to what you seek is Navajo. Navajo was famous in WWII due to the Code Talkers. The Code Talkers were actually from many nations, but Navajo became most famous because it was so unintelligable to those who had not learned the language and its grammar. Even related Native American language speakers found it hard to penetrate Navajo as a language.

I was lucky enough to take 1 semester on Native American languages in college in Arizona, where our class had a handful of Navajo in it, which was a real treat. You mention wanting a language with all the genders known... well Navajo has 11 of them. Actually, they call them classificatory verbs, because gender really starts to feel like a funny term when the number gets that high.

As described in my class, the Navajo would use one verb ending for small round objects. They would use a different one for rope like objects. When someone questioned what would be done with a computer mouse, which is rather ball like but has a long rope-like cord, the native speakers' opinion was that the correct verb ending depended on the context of the situation. If you were holding the mouse by the cord, you'd likely use the rope-like verbs! The axis forces never stood a chance!

However, even with all this "complexity," young Navajo children grew up and learned the language just as effectively as any English or French or Chinese speaker. If anything, this shows that our concept of "complex" doesn't necessarily line up with what the human brain treats as complex during language acquisition!

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    $\begingroup$ English is actually famous for being quite easy to learn as a second language. Its lack of morphology helps a lot. One learns a few syntactic patterns, and they can speak English. (Usually, the patterns are <adjective><noun>, <subject><verb><object>, <subject> "do not" <verb>, "do" <subject><verb>.) Then one learns more syntactic patterns, and their English improves; but the fact is that one can use English to communicate almost immediately. Compare with a language such as Latin, where a verb has more forms in the indicative present active than English has for all tenses, moods and voices. $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 3 '18 at 17:50
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    $\begingroup$ 11 classifiers is nothing. Classical Chinese used to have a similar system, as other East Asian languages (Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, etc.) do, but most modern Chinese languages have far more. For example, Cantonese has 78 proper classifiers, plus dozens more measure words, and even more words that are normal nouns but can be used as classifiers in context (like measurement units), and most of them are effectively arbitrary because the "class" they apply to is just one word—or, worse, a handful unrelated words (e.g., 架 for airplanes and pianos). $\endgroup$ – abarnert Sep 3 '18 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ Broken English is the international language... $\endgroup$ – AlexP Sep 3 '18 at 18:23
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    $\begingroup$ Also, there are differences between genders and classifiers. There are languages with 20 genders, and languages with 11 classifiers. The distinction is more about their morpho/grammatical function (although most languages are somewhere between the two paradigms). Genders cause verb agreement; synonyms can have different genders; genders are rarely thought of as individual words; etc. $\endgroup$ – abarnert Sep 3 '18 at 18:26
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    $\begingroup$ @abarnert I split the difference. They were introduced in my class as "genders," but when I look online today, I see them listed as classifiers. $\endgroup$ – Cort Ammon Sep 3 '18 at 18:48
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There are several ways to examine your question.

  • In one sense, what you're really asking is "How Did English Arise?" English has a large phoneme inventory, an extreme almost unwieldy system of tense-aspect in verbs, a suprisingly large system of nominal & verbal adpositions, and excessively large lexicon, etc.
  • On the other hand, what you're really asking is "How Can a Kitchen-Sink Language Arise?" Among glossopoets and language inventors, a "kitchen-sink" language is one that literally has all possible features. I have a nearly four page list of features for such a language in my notes.

The main issue I see here stems from what I think is your understanding of "complexity". People tend to think that features of a language make it "hard", "difficult" or "complex". And the converse, that removing those features makes a language "easy" or "simple".

In fact, all languages, whether you're talking English or Russian or Xhosa or Esperanto, are similarly complex. This is because all languages arise from within the human mind and are shaped by human culture and experience. Where a language appears "simple" like a lack of inflexion, it's generally hiding a compensatory complexity in its syntax. Take Latin and English. Latin nominal & verbal morphology are the bane of many young scholars. Amo, amare, amavi, amatus, -a, -um. Stella, stellae, stellae, stellam, stella; stellae, stellarum, stellis, stellas, stellis. Sure, in English, we have love, loved, loved; and star, stars. But this simplicity hides a plethora of compound forms like would have been about to have begun to love. I think even Catullus himself wouldn't quite know what to do with that!

I see your basic question as one of quantity rather than actual quality. In other words, you're not really asking for a qualitatively more complex language; you're just asking for a language with a higher content of known complexities. And of course, these languages already exist. Japanese has different writing systems, plus honorifics, numeric classifiers, etc. English has a complex verbal system, relatively large phoneme inventory, deep lexicon, multiple national & international standard forms, etc. Some cultures have, literally, different dialects or writing systems for women and men.

So, what kind of society would such a language tend to arise in? Basically, the answer is complexity arises in every language in every society.

As to what might motivate someone to construct such a language (perhaps from one that was already complex)? This is generally a somewhat idle project taken on by a glossopoet just to see how horrific a kitchen-sink language would actually be, once you lay out exactly how overly quantitatively complicated is will be.

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  • $\begingroup$ "you're just asking for a language with a higher content of known complexities." Yes, and more generally, under what conditions a "kitchen sink" like language might arise. One factor seems to be the number of language learners which more language learners (or recent historical waves of them) having a paring down effect. Language contact also seems to b a factor, with Japanese writing, for example, involving collecting multiple writing systems before any one of them become dominant. But Caucasian language phonemes seem to be associated with isolation. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 4 '18 at 1:20
  • $\begingroup$ 'Where a language appears "simple" . . . it's . . . hiding a compensatory complexity" This does seem to be usually true. But, must it be true? Perhaps it doesn't have to be true if a more elaborate society, e.g., with high formal Latin associated the vast Roman Empire being "more complex" or the same on almost all fronts than successor Romance languages. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 4 '18 at 1:22
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    $\begingroup$ 1. I don't think a true kitchen sink language would arise. They are absurdly overcomplicated. It literally means all the everything: all the tones; all the tone kinds (both pitch and contour); all the moods; all the cases; all the tenses; all the aspects; all the evidentials; all the abtönungspartikel; all the aktionsarten; all the genders & noun classes; all the numerical classifiers; all the suffixaufnahme and surdéclinaison; ... $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Sep 4 '18 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ all the morphosyntactic alignments; all the animacy values (rated by species); all the mirativity; all the inverse number; all the polarity; and a big bundle of every honorific possible; all the writing systems (use determined by context); and of course, all the writing systems have to be written in all directions; and separate grammatical categories, etc., for male speakers and female speakers; and seperate phonotactics and registers for males and females, and one for each same-sex and opposite sex pairing; etc, etc, etc That's just a couple items from the list $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Sep 4 '18 at 2:19
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    $\begingroup$ 2. I don't know if languages have to be that way or not. A situation that we dó see arising is slight shifts in "complexity" as the needs of culture change. I believe it's the case in Japanese that certain once useful honorifics are no longer used. In English, we are evolving a parallel writing system that is part rebus, part abjad, part logography. (Here I mean the so-called Txt-scrpt.) $\endgroup$ – elemtilas Sep 4 '18 at 2:25
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Create a culture where public debate and rhetoric play a very important role.

Any conflicts (political, judicial and personal) are resolved through verbal debate. That means those people who have the best language skills will raise to the top of society.

When words are weapons, you want to refine your arsenal. The more complex your grammar and the more versatile your vocabulary, the more eloquent you seem. Using unnecessarily obscure words and complex grammatical constructs can be a powerful strategy. The opponent can't form a retort against your argument when they barely understand it. Any spectators will get the impression that you got to be an amazingly educated and smart person if they can barely follow you.

People living in such a society will want to hone their language skills. They will not just use big words when in a debate, but also in everyday conversation. It would serve as practice, as a symbol of status and to intimidate any would-be verbal attackers.

The result will be that the language will become more complex over time, because unnecessary grammar rules and redundant neologisms won't die out through disuse but will be cherished and integrated into everyday language.

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  • $\begingroup$ The problem is that this retropredicts almost the exact opposite of what historically happened. Rome was highly focused on rhetoric, so Latin should have had a vast inventory of obscure words, and complex grammar rules, compared to, say, Proto-German. But it didn’t. Its complexity manifested in things like preserving most of the PIE declension and inflection system, which aren’t going to wow the crowds. Meanwhile, it was the Germans who started, e.g., giving grammatical function to word order, allowing you to wow people with surprise clauses. $\endgroup$ – abarnert Sep 4 '18 at 16:41
  • $\begingroup$ Also, the Romans are the ones who figured out that a pretty turn of phrase isn’t actually pretty if your listeners don’t recognize its prettiness. They didn’t like to disagree with Aristotle on much, but it’s pretty hard to deny the effectiveness of, say, "Veni, vidi, vici”. $\endgroup$ – abarnert Sep 4 '18 at 16:48
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If you've ever overheard a conversation between technical specialists such as doctors or engineers, you'll know how complex language arises. It comes about because humans share a grasp of a concept but lack a noun for it, so they invent one. Eventually systems are created to devise new nouns because of the sheer volume. Medicine leans on Latin gramma. Engineering on acronyms etc. But essentially new words are formed on a need basis. To have a general populace have a highly evolved language with a vocabulary of 200000 or so.. that public would have to be regularly discussing these concepts. Aside from enhanced vocabulary, advanced gramma happens for a similar reason.. to expedite conversation. Take 'verbing' in English for example.. We 'table' a motion rather that 'bring a motion to the table' because it's quicker to say. Verbing is relatively new in English. As vocabulary increases, so does the chance of gramatical evolution. In short, you need an intelligent mass of people who converse deeply, broadly, and regularly.

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    $\begingroup$ Good point. Organic chemistry, which has a highly linguistic grammatical and lexical terminology for specific molecules comes to mind. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 5 '18 at 0:10
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    $\begingroup$ Perfect example. Deoxyribonucleic acid.. reminds me of German compound words. There is also another old system of creating new words called 'kenning' which I can't explain here. $\endgroup$ – Richard Sep 5 '18 at 0:14
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Isolation

The more people have to learn a language as a second or third language, the fewer grammatical schemes or complex sounds they are going to learn.

For example, if your language uses click sounds, and then you come into contact with another group that does not use those sounds, adults from the other group will have a difficult time learning to speak your language. In that case, the common trade language would be either the non-click language, or a pidgin of the two. Now, there is a competing language for native click-speakers to learn if they want to conduct business, and perhaps the ease of speaking it will encourage people to switch more and more of the their communications to the other language.

So in order to keep your language pure, then your people should have limited contact with outsiders.

Spirituality

I hesitate to say religion, specifically, but a tradition of mystical literature might be a good way to add complexity to a language. Nothing is as obfusticating as prophecy, and so cloaking prophecy in the complexities of language might be a good way for the literate parts of your isolated society to increase the complexity of their language on purpose.

If this society so isolated already, then few if any people would speak an outside language. Perhaps the society has a central place complex, much as the Chinese viewed themselves as the Middle Kingdom. Languages from those outside the main society were clearly barbaric tongues. In any case, in order for priests and mystics to be able to communicate with each other, using the one true language, but in a way that the common people can't readily understand, they would have to add complexity to the language. Consecrated youths, brought up in the temples, would naturally learn this more complex version of the language, while commoners would not.

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    $\begingroup$ The second point is particularly a good one. There isn't the same pressure to simplify to be practical and efficient for day to day usage in a liturgical language or something similar as there is in other languages. I like the entire narrative a lot. $\endgroup$ – ohwilleke Sep 5 '18 at 17:02

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