Is the English Language undergoing a massive process of simplification?

When I last asked a question about an English structure here, some of the people advanced the idea that the subjonctive seems to be fading in a process that can be regarded as simplification. Having studying the topic on the Internet for a while I understand how simplified forms can be adopted as a result of standardization, but dropping noun cases and verb moods appears to be more massive than just turning ‘lit’ into ‘lighted’.
It is amazing how people in Antiquity managed to wield complex languages that the modern speaker cannot easily make use of. Let’s say it is a general toil to make language clearer and more logical. First, it seems to me that not all languages show this tendency of decimating grammar to the point where people’s everyday language resembles pidgin. And second, the effort of simplification does not include all aspects of living and culture, such as fashion, where dressing has become so complicated.

Is English really becoming way more incomplex than before? What does this craving for such a plain and effortless language stem from?

Linguists debate to what degree we can objectively classify languages as grammatically more “simple” vs. “complex.” On the one hand, as a language or language family evolves over hundreds and thousands of years, it tends to go through a cycle where one sort of complexity is replaced with another one — for example, lots of case endings on verbs and nouns (what you are alluding to in “antiquity”) is gradually replaced by rigid word order; or, a diversity of long words (as in Japanese) are replaced by a system of tones to distinguish fewer, shorter words (as in Chinese).

But other linguists point out that some languages ARE measurably “simpler” than others, in important ways. Generally, languages simplify for three reasons: 1. They become literary — written down, with lots of people reading and writing them, so some of the dialectal diversity is smoothed out; 2. A big, powerful state (national) government imposes a standard dialect, often deliberately simplified (e.g., Indonesian); 3. Partial creolization — for a time, lots of people (often, they are one partner in a married couple) learn the language as a SECOND language, and pass on the simplifications to their kids.

English has undergone 1 and 3, so it’s measurably simpler in SOME ways than even its Germanic cousins.

But there hasn’t been a massive acceleration in this process in recent years. It just feels that way to individual speakers like yourself, as we go through a life noticing certain details here and there, often with alarm.

Languages are always changing:

Furthermore, a language will change faster the more it’s in contact with other languages and the more speakers it has. A language only spoken by a few hundred people who live in an area where the speakers seldom encounter speakers of other languages changes slowly. A language spoken by hundreds of millions of speakers who are in constant contact with the speakers of other languages changes faster. Some of those changes are simplifications and some are complications. Incidentally, I disagree that dressing is more complicated now than it used to be.

To add to what JKellyMap says above:

[li]Why do you look at *only grammar * (and only verb forms, at that) when you consider the “complexity” of language?[/li][li]Only some uses of the subjunctive are “fading.” Others persist.[/li][li]Some of the forms of subjunctive that have “faded” are replaced by forms that in fact could be seen as just as “complex.”[/li][/ol]

Whenever something in a language becomes simpler, something else becomes more complicated, in order to still be able to communicate the same concepts.

Linguists are fond of absolutist dogmatic statements like this one. IMO there are are strong counterexamples.

This. When a language loses inflections, auxiliaries including prepositions, become more complex and word order becomes rigid, which means other means have to be used to convey emphasis. When someone says, “Let it is”, then we will know that the subjunctive is dead. My impression is that the subjunctive is still alive and well in American English, less so on the other side of the pond.

If anything, English is changing more slowly than it did for most of its history. We’ve only had standardized spelling since 1755, and arguably our grammar has never been standardized. We coin or adopt more words today than in years past, but otherwise things are changing much more slowly.

Here’s an example. Samuel Johnson’s famous aphorism about London is from 1777, or 241 years ago:

Now, here’s Dunbar’s quote about London from around 1525, or 250 years before Johnson:

The language changed far more from Dunbar’s time to Johnson’s than from Johnson’s time to our own.

When English lost gender, what became more complicated in its place?

English hasn’t lost gender. One complain about Spanish from English speakers is the blasted genders being everywhere, one complaint about English from Spanish speakers is the blasted genders being everywhere. The two “everywheres” actually mean “in a place in which my language doesn’t have it”.

And one thing that became complicated when you’re trying to express the gender or sex of a noun in English is having to add another word to do so.


Word order became more fixed as a general result of the case system fading away; in the case of gender, Wikipedia has a good little passage:

It’s possible to disambiguate their example sentence, of course; it would work out to “The flowerbed, which I maintain, in the garden.”; this demonstrates my point about word order taking on the weight the inflections used to carry, as the sentence must be partially rearranged to ensure the antecedent is closer to its relative clause.

To see how the other half lives, here’s a webpage (in English!) for Czech speakers learning English:

Did you see that? In the Czech sentence, the word order was unchanged, but the meaning (who was chaser, who was being chased) was completely flipped, a meaning carried entirely by inflection.

Only dead and artificial languages have standardized grammar. Any living natural language has a grammar which is discovered, not dictated.

English has lost the purely grammatical gender, and is slowly losing natural gender as well, as per “actress” fading out and simply using “actor” for everyone, and the increased official acceptance of the longstanding (as in, centuries longstanding) practice of using “they” as a singular pronoun.

Actor has an interesting etymology:

You’re focusing on nouns. There are other places where English grammar uses gender frequently, but you’re so used to them you don’t see them. To someone whose own language doesn’t have gender in the words in which English keeps it, or where those words are gendered but their usage isn’t constantly required as it is in English, THOSE WORDS ARE ABOUT THIS BIG.

Right. People tend to notice complexities in languages they have to learn, but are often are unaware of the complexity of their own language. And the most complex things we do with language never make it into traditional grammar books, so that many people don’t even look for them.

Yes, it dovetails nicely with the dumbing down of America.

This sounds good, but couldn’t there be lots of other reasons?

I’m reminded of this episode of the NHK show “Cool Japan,” discussing the trend toward simplification in Japanese language (and Japanese culture more generally).
It identifies other reasons Japanese is simplifying, including the prevalence of text messaging and incorporation of foreign words. Several people argue in the episode that linguistic simplification is also in some sense just a trend: people like it and continue to do it. (The “person on the street” interviews where Japanese people of different age groups are asked about this are really interesting; there are differing levels of comfort with it, but everyone seems to have plenty of examples that they understand and like.)

Obligatory XKCD: xkcd: Writing Skills

OK, can you give some examples?

Ok, I should have said English noun and definite article agreement. English used to have gendered noun and definite article agreement like many other Indo-European languages. That complexity is gone. “The” works for all nouns. “Se” became “the” and we didn’t need to add any complexity to account for the loss of “seo” (the feminine definite article analogous to “la” in Spanish).

Of course. But some aspects of language convey no actual information and can be lost without added complexity, as above. Even then, we can see where cases can be simplified without added complexity. Consider “whom” which is on the endangered pronoun list, perhaps soon to be extinct. And one reason it’s disappearing is that it isn’t usually necessary. “Who did you give that to” does not create any confusion relative to “Whom did you give that to” or “To whom did you give that”.