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195714Is there an inverse relationship between lexical richness and grammatical complexity?

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  • Daniel Bowman
    Mar 19 7:31 PM
      Hi All,

      Alex Fink and I had a very interesting conversation today where we considered how lexical richness may (or may not) have an inverse relationship with grammatical complexity. I am interested to hear what others on the list think of this concept, and I'm particularly excited to know if anyone's considered this while designing their conlangs.

      This is how it works:

      If a language has a large lexicon, it may be able to use words to describe situations that other languages grammaticalize. For example, English does not grammaticalize formality (unlike Korean and Japanese). Therefore, English speakers have to use words to describe a situation that a Korean speaker would mark using a certain formality inflection. English is richer in vocabulary for formality, whereas Korean is richer in grammar. If Korean has less words for formal situations than English, this would lend support to the inverse relationship hypothesis.

      Another example showing the inverse: my conlang Angosey has evidentiality markers. One of these markers indicates that the speaker considers the source of information doubtful. In this case, I have obviated the need for the word "doubt" since I have a grammatical construction for it. I can likely do away with "dubious, unsubstantiated, unlikely" etc, or at least greatly reduce my usage of these terms.

      I think the absolute inverse relationship is unlikely to hold - I am sure there's a situation where I would need a word for "doubt" in Angosey and be unable to replace it with my evidentiality marker. However, such markers may push certain words - such as "doubt" below the "common use" threshold we recently discussed in the English word count thread. In other words, the word "doubt" will exist, but it will be used quite seldom since the evidentiality marker replaced most of its occurrences.

      Irrespective of whether or not the lexical richness vs grammatical complexity holds for natlangs, it poses an interesting puzzle for conlangers. Is it possible to design a very lexically rich, grammatically minimal conlang? Is it easier to do this than to make (and use) one that is both grammatically and lexically sparse?

      Conversely, is it possible, or do we have examples of, languages with a very minimal lexicon with a correspondingly rich grammar? Perhaps Ithkuil is an example of this?

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