Redundancy vs. simplicity

From David Parkinson on Facebook, an expression of his frustration in his German class:

If your language (like English) doesn’t have much inflectional morphology, then learning a language with a respectable amount of it (like German) can be a chore: you have to learn to mark all sorts of distinctions in grammatical categories that don’t come naturally to you.

Many of these inflectional marks are, at least in part, redundant (in a technical sense); they reinforce category distinctions that are marked in other ways. Marks of agreement are like this. So, in German, the definite article agrees in case, gender, and number with its head noun.

Speaking very crudely, these redundant marks are helpful to the hearer, by giving extra cues to relationships among the parts of phrases and clauses. They aid comprehension.

On the other hand, these redundant marks require effort on the part of the speaker, in planning language production and and accessing the appropriate inflectional forms. They work against simplicity.

There are trade-offs here. Redundancy is good. But simplicity is good too.


7 Responses to “Redundancy vs. simplicity”

  1. Ellen K. Says:

    The chart oversimplifies English, though, as spoken English (but not written) has TWO definite articles. Though perhaps one could get away with only using the /ðə/ form and not the /ði/ form.

  2. Gary Says:

    In German, the case markings on the nouns and weak adjectives are so vestigial and unhelpful that the case marking of the articles is what people actually use to parse sentences.

  3. Kadar Solihan 1989 Says:

    That’s was the uniqueness of language. In bahasa Indonesia. We are free from article. The student = murid in bahasa so there is no article in our language.

  4. Jack Kouloheris Says:

    It is useful for me, as an engineer, to think of this in terms of Shannon’s information theory. Is the extra redundancy useful in transmitting information over noisy channels ? i.e. does it aid comprehension in the presence of noise, imperfect writing, etc.
    Have any studies been done on this ?

    Or is it just wasted complexity ?

    We use redundancy deliberately in computer and communication systems to ensure that accurate transmission of information. It allows both the detection and correction of errors. Shannon’s theory provides bounds on the minimum number of bits that are needed to transmit information over a noisy channel. It would be interesting to understand if human languages have evolved, over time, to become more efficient at transmitting information over the channels we use. And if that language evolution is changing now that we have more reliable technology-aided forms of communication.

    Perhaps this has already been studied to death.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Two things about redundancy in grammar. One, it’s conventionalized, and (within a particular variety) obligatory; you don’t get to disregard redundant marks when they wouldn’t be needed for communicative purposes. And two, it’s in competition with a different purpose, ease of production. So languages aren’t going to evolve so as to maximize just one of these factors; every variety, at any particular time, represents a compromise between the two.

  5. John Baker Says:

    English has its shortcomings: It’s hard to spell, even for native speakers; some words and phrases are difficult to say distinctly and to understand; and apparently nobody knows what “passive” means. My question is, is this one of them? Are there instances where we fail to convey information or are prone to misunderstanding because we have only one definite article?

  6. the ridger Says:

    It’s not so much that we “have only one definite article” as that for all practical purposes we have no case (or gender) markings at all. Russian has no articles, though it has several ways to express definite vs indefinite, but it has six active cases, one vestigial, and one used only in oral, casual conversation. This permits a much freer word order than English can have, but as I struggle to prove to my students, English can convey the same things; we just have to use more words instead of, say, leading with the direct object.

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