Cfp: SHESL-HTL Conference 2020 – Simplicity and complexity of languages in the history of linguistic theories (Paris, January 23-25, 2020)

Call for papers
Paris, January 23-25, 2020

Simplicity and complexity of languages in the history of linguistic theories

The goal of this conference is to explore the ways in which, through the history of linguistic theories, languages have been evaluated in terms of their complexity.


As is all too well known, ranking languages was in the past often a way to consolidate nationalist, racist and colonialist prejudices, a dubious pursuit now viewed as conflicting with scientific impartiality. But not all rankings carry the same ideological load nor can they be dismissed out of hand as unscientific. In the past few years, for example, the question of whether languages exhibit different degrees of complexity has been the subject of various papers and meetings (cf. Joseph & Newmeyer 2012; see also the next SGdS conference*).
Different ways of evaluating complexity have been adduced so far. As a first approximation, they may be conveniently categorized into two broad classes (Miestamo 2008): “absolute” evaluations are essentially based on the length of grammatical description, while user-relative rankings assess complexity in terms of processing costs, for the speaker or the addressee. Factors which drive simplification or complexification have sometimes be seen to interact in ways which involve trade-offs, such as between distinctness and ease of processing (as in Deutlichkeit and Bequemlichkeit in Gabelentz, McElvenny 2017). Similarly, complexity may arise when prominent tendencies of particular languages are counteracted by expressive and pragmatic purposes, frequency and automaticity, conflicting impulses and various cognitive liabilities (cf. e.g. Bally 1932).
There is a long history of the notion that languages evolve from a core that is “simple”, and perhaps universal. Some proposals in this direction have been put forward in Creole and language acquisition studies, in which this core is seen, respectively, as the base from which Creoles are constructed and second language learning proceeds (Bickerton 1984; Klein & Perdue 1997). Such proposals are connected with questions relating to universal grammar, or, from a different perspective, to the pragmatic origin of some grammatical features (Givón 1979). A historical account of theories of linguistic complexification is a subject open to further exploration.
From a historical perspective, views on the relative complexity of languages have intersected with concerns sometimes framed in an axiological and teleological perspective. We may think, for instance, of Jespersen’s view that languages progress toward analyticity and economy. Positive judgments on simplicity or, on the contrary, favorable views of high complexity must be understood against their general backdrop, for example the conception of language as an institution serving practical purposes, or as an organism giving birth to grammatically refined forms. However, the relation of evaluations to these general backdrops may not be straightforward (McElvenny 2017).
Assessments of complexity are at the very least implicit in some attempts to create artificial, auxiliary or universal languages, or to “redeem” existing languages through simplification, or to create simplified versions for social purposes (cf. Ogden’s Basic English; McElvenny 2018). Such undertakings offer a further opportunity for examining those features which were retained as criteria of simplicity.

Proposals may deal with the following topics and concern any period or cultural area (the list is not intended to be exhaustive):
– The complexity scale and the various notions of complexity that have been adduced so far (e.g. “absolute”, i.e. in terms of grammatical description, or user-relative, in terms of processing costs); the various trade-offs involved in defining complexity;
– Hierarchical typologies, i.e. rankings of languages according to some criterial feature(s), such as the degree to which they have grammatical “form”, or approach “natural order”; the relation of such features to cognitive universals, i.e. the idea that languages which are cognitively “natural” should be simpler for speakers to learn and to use;
– The history of conceptions bearing on the complexification (or simplification) of languages, whether in phylogeny or in ontogeny;
– The various attempts made at “simplifying” languages;
– The cultural and social environments and the scientific arguments which have been conducive to a rejection of forms of linguistic hierarchization in terms of complexity (i.e. arguments in favor of the idea that all languages are equally complex);
– The analytic / synthetic scale; the axiological import of this scale and its consequences for the conception of universal languages;
– The aesthetic evaluation of languages, among other aspects, the rhetorical potential afforded by their structure and their complexity, the literary benefits of complexity etc.

*30th Conference of the Sudienkreis ‘Geschichte der Sprachwissenschaft’, on ‘Brevity’ and ‘prolixity’ in the history of linguistic thought (October 2019, Clermont-Ferrand, France).


Bally, Charles (1932) Linguistique Générale et Linguistique Française. Paris, Librairie Ernest Leroux.
Bickerton, Derek (1984). “The Language Bioprogram Hypothesis”, Behavioral and Brain Sciences 7(2): 173-221.
Givón, Talmy (1979) On Understanding Grammar. New York / San Francisco / London, Academic Press.
Jespersen, Otto (1894) Progress in Language. London, Swan Sonnenschein & Co.
Joseph, John & Newmeyer, Frederick (2012) “ ‘All languages are equally complex’: The rise and fall of a consensus”, Historiographia Linguistica 39(2-3): 341-368.
Klein, Wolfgang, & Perdue, Clive (1997) “The Basic Variety (or: Couldn’t natural languages be much simpler?)”, Second Language Research 13: 301-347.
McElvenny, James (2017) “Linguistic aesthetics from the nineteenth to the twentieth century: the case of Otto Jespersen’s ‘Progress in Language’.” History of Humanities 2(2).
McElvenny, James (2018) Language and meaning in the age of modernism. C.K. Ogden and his contemporaries. Edinburgh, Edinburgh University Press.
Miestamo, Matti (2008) “Grammatical complexity in a cross-linguistic perspective.” In Matti Miestamo, Kaius Sinnemäki & Fred Karlsson (eds.), Language Complexity: Typology, Contact, Change. Amsterdam, John Benjamins: 23-41.
Deadline for submission : 1e juillet 2019
Contact :
Website :
Registration fees: 50 €  (35 € for the students)
Free for the members of the SHESL

Posted in Conferences and workshops, Uncategorized

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