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  • Measuring Grammatical Complexity ed. by Frederick J. Newmeyer, Laurel B. Preston
  • Behzad Mansouri and Hamidreza Moeiniasl
Frederick J. Newmeyer and Laurel B. Preston, eds. 2014. Measuring Grammatical Complexity. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Pp. xvi + 370. US $110 (hardcover).

Measuring Grammatical Complexity is an edited collection of papers presented at the “Formal Linguistics and the Measurement of Grammatical Complexity” workshop held in Seattle in March 2012. Consisting of fourteen chapters, the volume addresses grammatical complexity differences among languages from a formal linguistics approach. Each chapter explores the concept of complexity either from a grammar-based (e.g., Minimalist program) or user-based (e.g., Construction Grammar) perspective in order to highlight the complexity of specific grammatical elements or their degree of difficulty for language users. The volume also contains two chapters that deal with the contributions of neurolinguistics to the measurement of complexity. Covering both the trade-off hypothesis and interpretive complexity, the volume provides a new methodological perspective in bringing together empiricist and generativist stances in the assessment of grammatical complexity. [End Page 123]

In chapter 1, “Introduction”, Newmeyer and Preston review three independent currents that led to the axiomatic belief that all languages are equally complex (as summarized in Hockett 1958), a belief which prevailed for over a century. This idea was derived from the humanistic sense of equality (human beings are equal; hence, languages are equal), from the linguistic trade-off hypothesis (complexity in one part of grammar is balanced out by simplicity in another part), and from Universal Grammar (languages are equally complex or simple).

In chapter 2, “Major contributions from formal linguistics to the complexity debate”, Hawkins examines the concepts of efficiency and complexity, which he discussed in detail in Hawkins (2004). The author claims that the precision of measurement relies on the formalization and characterization of surface structure syntactic phenomena. Different structures, once measured, can be ranked and used for cross-linguistic comparison purposes. Efficiency can also be measured by investigating complexity in different areas of grammar.

In chapter 3, “Sign languages, creoles, and the development of predication”, Gil attributes the relative contribution of predication to the level of complexity in young languages (e.g., sign languages and creoles) and other languages. Defining predication as a “composite emergent entity derived from the alignments of two independent elements of conceptual structures: thematic role assignment and headedness” (p. 54), the author provides evidence on the absence of grammaticalized predication, or the presence of only weak grammaticalized predication, in young languages, based on two morphosyntactic phenomena, that is, core argument marking and expressions of tense, aspect, and modality (TAM), which suggests that young languages are simpler than other languages.

In chapter 4, “What you can say without syntax: A hierarchy of grammatical complexity”, Jackendoff and Wittenberg argue that meaning is expressed through a trade-off between the semantic/pragmatic component of grammar and the syntactic component, positioned on a hierarchy. The proposed hierarchy is composed of three main parts: word-level grammar, simple phrase grammar, and recursive phrase grammar. At simpler syntactic levels, successful communication relies more on pragmatics and discourse, while at more complex levels, there is more reliance on the syntactic component.

In chapter 5, “Degrees of complexity in syntax: A view from evolution”, Progovac adopts a minimalist framework in discussing syntactic complexity. She argues that root small clauses and intransitive absolutive clauses are syntactically simpler than tense phrases and transitive clauses respectively, which suggests that syntax evolved progressively, with simpler structures providing the foundation for more complex constructions. The author also presents neurological evidence for differing syntactic complexity levels in support of her thesis.

In chapter 6, “Complexity in comparative syntax: The view from modern parametric theory”, Biberauer, Holmberg, Roberts, and Sheehan question the underlying assumptions of the classic parametric theory. As an alternative, they propose that parameters emerge from the interaction of an underspecified Universal Grammar, the primary linguistic data, and acquisition strategies. Through investigating typological features of English, Mandarin Chinese, Japanese, Mohawk, and Basque, [End Page 124] the authors explain how this view permits the quantification of grammatical complexity into parameter hierarchies.

Chapter 7, “The complexity of narrow syntax: Minimalism, representational economy, and simplest Merge”, by Trotzke and Zwart, highlights the...


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