A phylogenetic and cognitive perspective on linguistic complexity

  • Rusandré Hendrikse
  • Hildegard van Zweel


In recent years a growing interest in the nature of linguistic complexity has emerged in linguistic circles. A striking feature of this interest is that linguistic complexity is taken to be a phenomenon in its own right. In fact, an extreme construal of the inherent complexity of language is represented in the notion of universal grammar , which subsumes the view that the ability to deal with linguistic complexity is genetically hard-wired. Even approaches that do not subscribe to this extreme stance on the independence of linguistic complexity, still regard complexity as an inherent feature of language. That is, the growth and maintenance of linguistic complexity is viewed as being inherent in linguistic systems and the result of intra-systemic factors such as innateness, grammaticalisation, redundancy, and so on. In this article, however, we argue that the complexity of linguistic systems may also be understood as the result of the relation between language, mind and an extra-linguistic reality. In our view, linguistic complexity is a function of the representational role that language plays in the complex mental processing and construal of a complex reality. Furthermore, we maintain that the complex nature of language co-evolved with neuronal and cognitive architecture as a result of the growth in the volume and complexity of information about phenomena in reality.

Southern African Linguistics and Applied Language Studies 2010, 28(4): 409–422

Author Biographies

Rusandré Hendrikse
Department of Linguistics, University of South Africa, PO Box 392, Pretoria 0003, South Africa
Hildegard van Zweel
Department of Linguistics, University of South Africa, PO Box 392, Pretoria 0003, South Africa

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1727-9461
print ISSN: 1607-3614