Complexity in isolating languages: Lexical elaboration versus grammatical economy

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Contrary to recent claims that highly analytic or isolating languages are simpler than synthetic languages, in large part due to lack of inflectional affixation in the former, I argue that although isolating Asian languages such as Hmong, Mandarin Chinese, and Thai may be economical in terms of inflection, they exhibit significantly more complex lexical patterns of particular types than more synthetic languages such as Polish and English in like contexts. Evidence includes the use of classifiers, reduplication, compounding, stylized four-part expressions, verb serialization, and other types of what I call “lexical elaboration.” This analysis has implications for the question “What is linguistic complexity?” as well as for the more basic and vexing question of “What is grammar?”


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