Eastern languages score over Western ones, regarding simpler grammar?

Am prompted to start this thread, by elements of the “Grammatical Gender” thread on GQ – mods, please move this one, if that seen as appropriate. I don’t think I’ve previously posted on this topic.

It will be clear that I’m no learned expert on language matters; but anyway, I was reading quite a while back, a book by a British author about his experiences during a spell of working in Malaysia. This guy was, like me, absolutely not an erudite languages scholar: however, his attempts to learn a bit of the Malay language gave rise to some reflection on his part.

He was struck by how the language seemed to him, to tackle its job mostly in a simpler way, than did English, or any other European language with which he had any acquaintance. No tenses for verbs; no alteration of word-endings according to the word’s role in the sentence; no definite or indefinite articles; and IIRC, no plurals (as with Japanese, per the “Grammatical Gender” thread). This simplicity required more figuring-out of things from context, than happens with European languages; but the author considered that so long as one had an average amount of common sense, the figuring-out-from-context was not that difficult.

He went on to ponder whether Eastern languages generally – taking Malay to broadly share traits with others (which one gathers it does, to a good extent) – are more sensible creations, than European languages of the Indo-European family; with the latter’s “baggage” of fussy and elaborate grammar, being really not necessary: in that figuring-out-from-context can take one a very long way, without requiring extreme effort?

I just wonder what people more learned about languages than the book’s author, or me, would think about the above – very-widely-generalised – idea? (I’m aware that languages are quirky things which grow slowly in unpredictable ways, with logic / good sense / efficiency not necessarily a priority; and also, that some Eastern languages are – however simple their grammar – tonal ones, which makes them hideously difficult to learn for many European-language-speakers.)

Every non-pathological language has about the same total amount of complexity; they just have it in different aspects of the language.

Tones are a grammatical feature - just one which you and I didn’t get to study in school because our languages don’t officially* have it. “Grammar” is a much wider concept than most people tend to think.

  • Officially in that tone of voice is still used to convey a lot; the same sentence can be a compliment, a slur or sarcasm depending on tone. But in our case the tone applies to wider elements than the individual words.

That author which you’re citing was no expert on languages. The amount of complexity is about the same in all languages. He was just looking for certain features that are in some European languages. He saw that they didn’t exist (or he just missed them) in some Asian languages. He clearly had only a very superficial knowledge of those languages. They have other aspects that are complex to many speakers of European languages.

Hang on a moment, Wendell.

Sangahyando, any chance that the British author you mentioned is Anthony Burgess? And that the book you read years ago was Burgess’ A Mouthful of Air?

Also, keep in mind that when one speaks of “European Languages”, one is speaking mostly of languages that all belong to the same Language Family-- Indo-European. That is to say, they were all the very same language within the last 5,000 - 10,000 years. Malay and Mandarin, for instance, are not in the same Language Families. Nor are Korean and Japanese. All 4 of those major “Eastern Languages” are in different Language Families.

So, you’re not really comparing apples to apples here.

Anthony Burgess was not an expert on languages. He was a composer and a novelist. He taught some languages at the high school level. If he was the author that Sangahyando was talking about, he clearly didn’t have any training in linguistics. Someone who did wouldn’t have said such things as Sangahyando quotes.

I just just Lingo: Around Europe in Sixty Languages by Gaston Dorren, It’s a series of short, popular essays about 60 different European languages, some of them non-Indo European in origin.* Most of the essays concentrate on some feature of the language that makes them different or unusual or odd to non-speakers trying to learn it. His point is that every single language has some of these, and virtually every “oddity” developed logically or at least understandably out of that language’s history.

The difficulty of a language to a non-speaker depends heavily on the experience the person had with the native language. Some “oddities” are harder to grasp than others - if you don’t grow up hearing tones or certain phonemes you may never get them right - but others are conquerable by diligent practice. Nothing about any particular language or group of languages appears to be intrinsically easy or difficult, though.
*Dorren is not an expert in all 60 languages, the book is meant to be a light read and definitely not a technical tome, and he needs to not repeat himself so he digs pretty far at times to come up with new stuff to say. Overall, though, it’s the most fun I’ve had with a book on language in a long time and I have a shelf-full of them.

This claim is repeated often. I wonder how it applies in the case of Thai.

Thai has a simple uninflected grammar with few markings. What are the complex aspects of Thai that compensate for its simplicities to give it “about the same total complexity” as English?

Thai does have a rich assortment of pronouns, honorifics and interjections which may give a sentence more social “meaning” than an English sentence has, but with number and tense frequently omitted, the main meaning of a sentence is often ambiguous.

A quick look at the grammar of Malay suggests that it is hardly simple.

It does not have features of European grammar, but has other things, such as measure words (surely an areal feature of the “Eastern” languages).

Spelling comes to mind, since the Thai alphabet has multiple consonants for certain sounds. Tones are indicated by the spelling, but not in a straightforward, easy to memorize way. There are classifiers to have to learn, too.

Thanks, everyone. General impression received, is as I pretty much expected – from a European’s point of view, easier in some ways, not at all easier in others !

The book I mention, was not by Burgess – I’ve forgotten title, and author’s name; but the author was just a random guy (though he wrote well) telling of his various experiences in Malaysia. I’ve read some stuff by Burgess – including his bouts with the Malay language – took pleasure in reading of the wonderful and embarrassing-to-reveal, crazy aide-memoires which he dreamed up to help him remember words in various languages.

This book sounds fascinating – I feel keen to acquire a copy.

I went to the link and took a quick look – I agree: Malay has complexities which English, say, doesn’t ! I suppose one should keep in mind that languages “develop as they do”: in their development, logic and regularity and ease-of-learning, are not priorities – other than in artificially invented languages like Esperanto: such “synthetic” tongues seem not to be in alignment with human nature, and they basically don’t catch on – no matter how useful a uniform lingua franca might be.

Just on a quick search, I find that there are things like classifiers, mood particles, idioms, the neutral passive, abstract nominalization, multiple personal pronouns, and politeness markers which are considered difficult in Thai grammar.

And when I said “non-pathological”, that was to exclude cases like Pirahã, which is entirely lacks any way of expressing many concepts we would consider essential. It’s believed that this is due to some calamity that befell the tribe in the relatively recent past, and which left only partly-educated children as its survivors.

Do you have a cite? Obviously “complexity” is the kind of thing that has a lot of possible definitions. But as an English speaker whose learned French and Vietnamese, I’d say the latter is much less complex, in terms of the number of unique things a person has to memorize to speak it.

Vietnamese has a more complicated pronoun system, and classifiers. But these require a learner to memorize far fewer things then French’s gendered nouns and inflections.

(That said, spoken Vietnamese is much harder for a westerner to learn then French. But not because of complexity, but just because the vowel sounds and tones are difficult for an untrained ear/mouth to distinguish)

There are different types of complexity; and the purpose of communication becomes relevant to the discussion. A Thai listener may get a good sense of speaker’s mood and attitude toward listener, but have trouble understanding whether the event under discussion is in the past or future, or who exactly is/was invited!

By abstract nominalization, I assume you mean adding a prefix like ความ to turn an adjective into a noun much like English uses the suffix -ness. That this simple device shows up in a hunt for Thai complications just reaffirms to me the language’s simplicity.

Classifiers may seem weird to us, but only their large number makes them “complicated”; and my teenage informants tell me most of the classifiers are now obsolescent.

(Thai orthography has difficulties, but I thought the constant-complexity principle applied to the spoken language.)

As I mentioned earlier, “tones” in languages which use them (same word, different meaning depending on the tone) can be, I gather, diabolical for Western would-be learners. I’ve never seriously tackled any tonal language – on my one visit to China, I more-or-less managed with four words which I learned to say, and relied otherwise on pointing at the phrasebook. My brother, who is a very bright guy, visited the country in the course of his job, and got free of charge, some elementary spoken-Chinese lessons. He just could not get anywhere with the four Mandarin tones – even from a native speaker, they all sounded exactly alike to him. One would suspect that with Westerners, some have a receptive ear for language tones, and some don’t.

It does matter how you define complexity, and some languages have more structure than others. All languages are equally acquirable by babies, though, so as I said above the definition is usually phrased in terms of adult learners.

This, from the Cambridge Language Blog, sums up the discussion and, fortunately, backs me up.

They’re certainly very difficult, but I don’t think I’d call them “complex”. Basically, they’re just another spelling (or if speaking, pronounciation) element added to each word.

Westerners have trouble hearing/pronouncing them, but the same is true of many Vietnamese vowels*. But the Vietnamese “e” isn’t any more “complex” then the English “e”, its just harder for an English speaker to pronounce.

*(indeed, I’d say the vowel issue is a lot harder then the tone issue for English Vietnamese learners).

ETA: Thanks for the link, Expano

But if a language has more distinct phonemes, then that is itself a form of complexity.