Why Are Some Languages So Complicated?

Linguist Danny Hieber, Editor in Rosetta Stone’s Endangered Language Program, answers a question from one of our Facebook fans: Why are some languages so complicated? Click on the video below to hear Danny’s answer, and visit the Rosetta Stone Facebook page or comment below to ask a question of your own!

You can learn even more about languages by viewing the rest in our Question Cabin Wednesday series.


Hi, I’m Danny Hieber, the editor for the Endangered Language Program here at Rosetta Stone. Recently we had a Facebook fan ask us: “Why are some languages so complicated?” And believe me, I can relate, because we deal with some of the most complicated languages in the Endangered Language Program! Such as Navajo, some of the Inuit Eskimo languages. These languages are tough. But what is it that makes them complicated, and why are they complicated?

Well first off, some of it might just be that they’re hard to learn. A speaker of English isn’t used to dealing with things like tone, isn’t used to dealing with crazy noun classes, or verbs that have eleven different pieces in them. You’re just not used to dealing with that. But someone from another language who is used to dealing with that kind of thing could learn Navajo very easily. So sometimes it’s just…it’s the perspective from which you approach it.

But at the same time, some languages do seem to have a lot of categories or a lot of distinctions or really complicated verb structures that really just belie common sense. And you wonder: How could they ever get this complicated? For example in Navajo, you have to use a different verb when talking about certain objects depending on the shape and type of object it is. So long, thin objects might use one verb, and flat, flexible objects like a piece of paper might use another. And I think there are seven or eight different classes like that in Navajo. And the reason these things come about is because at some point, speakers of the language found that functionally useful. It was culturally relevant or it was a way to communicate about something. So there might have been objects in the environment that were useful to talk about in that manner, and eventually over time that gets coded into the language. And now speakers might not have any conscience recognition of where those came from, but because it’s part of the language they learn and speak, they’re kind of forced to use it in everyday parlance. So languages can get really complicated, really fast over time by just adding in these different pieces of the environment and world around you…way of speaking about things that get coded into the language, and then they’re stuck there.

  • http://danielhieber.com/2011/08/24/why-are-some-languages-so-complicated-via-rosetta-stone-blog/ Why Are Some Languages So Complicated? (via Rosetta Stone Blog) | Daniel W. Hieber

    […] Why Are Some Languages So Complicated? (via Rosetta Stone Blog) Linguist Danny Hieber, Editor in Rosetta Stone’s Endangered Language Program, answers a question from one of our Facebook fans: Why are some languages so complicated? Click on the video below to view Danny’s answer, and visit the Rosetta Stone Facebook page to ask a question of your own! You can learn even more about languages by viewing the rest in our Question Cabin Wednesday series. … Read More […]

  • http://gias.uncc.edu Ellen

    Good explanation. Perspective and cultural utility making some languages so complicated makes total sense. Such is the beauty of language and the immense undertaking it is and commitment it takes to learning! I can’ stop; my brain says, “Yes please!” (in about 5 different languages now.)

  • Edward

    Unfortunately, your answer is completely wrong. All languages started out enormously complicated and became simpler over time through civilized (written) use. Take Classical Greek, which has something like 1,000 verb tenses and 47 different words in the New Testament that were all translated into Latin (itself a very complicated language) as “soul”. The longer a language is in use, the simpler it becomes, for some reason. The simplest major language in use today is Chinese, which has been in use for millenia and does not use gender, number or even verb tenses, but is capable of extremely subtle and nuanced use, of course.

    Exceptions to the simplification process would include dead languages with a body of text, either sacred or the equivalent, such as ancient Hebrew and Greek, or crude, vernacular, isolated and unwritten languages such as the Mediaeval European languages (when the heavy-duty thinking was done in Latin) or Navajo (where any heavy-duty thinking would probably have been in Spanish).

    My final comment critiques your answer in another way. To wit, for every event there is an arbitrary number of plausable explanations. It’s easy to make up a story that can convince the uninformed and much easier than actually doing the research required. The question asked would make a good PhD dissertation, but off-the-top-of-head explanations are probably not so usefull.

  • Elizabeth

    Edward, your response brings a few thoughts to mind.

    It is very likely that languages have simplified over time, that complex structures have fallen out of use, and that individual languages have become less complex than they used to be, but if you want to be taken seriously, watch the sweeping generalizations. To say that this is true for all languages is absurd. The need for efficiency in communication has simplified many languages, and so for languages that have been around for thousands of years, there are examples of simplification. For those languages that are still developing, as the rules lock into place and generations pass down the languages, they may actually be getting more complex.

    While your off-the-top-of-the-head explanation is an interesting theory, it is also irrelevant to this discussion, save your use of the word “complicated” and your discussion of languages. Danny’s point is that some languages are more complex than others, and an explanation for why. Instead, you have pointed out that languages simplify over time. Those could easily both be true. If you mean to say that the reason some languages are less complicated is because they are older languages which have had the time to simplify, you missed a logical step in your argument.

    Still, if that’s what you mean to say, I wonder then why Arabic is so much more complicated than Spanish, for example. Based on your theory, since Arabic has had more time to simplify itself, it should not be a particularly complicated language. Or if the extra few hundred years of development aren’t enough to give it that extra edge, that extra simplicity, they should at least be in the same realm of complexity. And yet…

    I would just like to point out one more thing, Edward. If you are going to critique Danny’s response for its lack of research and for seemingly coming just off the top of his head, hold yourself to the same standard. Do some research. Show some evidence. List a source or two. The context of this video didn’t really require sources (and just because he hasn’t listed them doesn’t mean there was no research involved), but if you want them from him, it doesn’t make any sense that you haven’t provided any in your answer.

  • Elizabeth

    Edward, would you mind clarifying what you mean by “crude, vernacular, isolated and unwritten languages?” And why people using these languages (and you use Medieval European languages and Navajo as examples) would do their “heavy-duty thinking” in other languages?

    Do you mean that the people doing the “heavy-duty thinking” (scholars, scientists, philosophers, poets and the like) would be writing in these other languages that are less “crude,” more highly valued socially? Or do you mean that native speakers, when thinking about abstract concepts and scientific or spiritual ideas, would actually switch to another language in their heads?

    The first may be true (as people in lower socioeconomic groups or those who are not treated with respect in their society are not often accepted as scholars and teachers), but the second most definitely is not. One of the distinguishing features of human language is the fact that it has an unlimited domain–that its users can discuss any concept, both concrete and abstract. So, given that these language users have (or had, in the case of Medieval European languages) a native language to work with, what evidence do you have that they would use some other cultural group’s language to do their “heavy-duty thinking?” Do you mean to say that monolingual Navajo speakers simply do not have complex thoughts? That they cannot comprehend abstract ideas? That until the English and the Spanish colonized North America, the Navajo people living there could not participate in this serious thought?

  • Drawde


    please cite sources for your claims. Thanks,

    An armchair linguist interested in further reading.

  • Janelle

    Ok, would someone talk about Hungarian?I am in process of learning it. I know this is a Rosetta Stone site but so the people I am learning Hungarian with, have found the Pimsleur course to be the most useful. What I would like is a book on Hungarian verbs, something like the 101 Spanish Verbs which is part of a series. WQE need materials on the less well known languages.

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