Why is the grammar of old languages so complicated?

It is a great mystery for me: people far in the past must have been less intelligent than we, therefore it would have seemed logical that they did not have too complicated a language. Why did our ancestors need so a complicated language?

To illustrate my point, let’s take an old language that I know enough: latin

In latin, there are six declension cases. English has none. There are even remnants of another case (locative): sum domi, sum ruri

In latin, there are three genders: masculine, feminine and neutral. English has none.

In latin there is a full conjugation system with a specific verb ending for each person: amo, amas, amat, amamus, amatis, amant. English has a very simple conjugation system.

It is also interesting to notice that a great deal of latin verbs are irregular, in the sense that there is no way to predict all the forms of the verb from the infinitive form. The root of the perfect tense and of the past participle is unpredictable in many cases.

Let’s take the verb “manere” (to stay, to remain). The root of the perfect tense is “mans-” Where does the s come from?

There is also a special conjugation for the passive voice. Instead of building the passive voice, as in English and in French, with the verb “to be” and the past participle, latin has specific verb endings.

I love = amo
I am loved: amor
I hear: audio
I am heard: audior
You are heard: audiris

(It seems that the greek conjugation is even more complicated)

In latin, there are also remnants of a “dual” beside singular and plural. It is a noun ending which takes place when there are only two things.

Sam: That’s a bit cheeky - people in the past were less educated, absolutely - simply because there was less stuff for them to be educated about… But less intelligent, what - have our brains swollen up like balloons over the last couple of millennia…? I don’t think so.

Re: the complexities of languages - I’ll bet for a start there were high and low forms of the language you speak of - one for the proles and one for the nobs. Perhaps the perfect command of a whoa-complex language in the public arena was a subtle game of one-upmanship…? “I can talk better than wot you can mate - ergo my opinion is better too…?” Or just a lack of TV getting in the way of polishing your Grandma. :blush: Grammar.

And among Indo-European languages, it seems like the older languages have more cases, not fewer. The original I-E language, it’s been projected, had eight cases. Eastern European languages tend to be highly inflected.

Do you know any Sanskrit, Samkhya?


I am no linguist. I will suggest, however, that in the case of Latin, the language is very logical - rules exist and are followed, in all cases.

English, on the other hand, was constructed from various sources and adopted the rules of the original languages.

Adoption was made where necessary; if a word or expression was useful, it was adopted. Often with slight changes. The resulting English is therefore quite a mix. Think of ‘beef’ - from French boeuf. Plural: beeves? Or beefs? Why not like leaf/leaves? Hey, why not ‘beaf’?

As for grammar, most languages have irregular forms for ‘to have’ and ‘to be’. ‘I eat’, ‘you eat’, ‘he eats’, etc., but ‘I am’, ‘you are’, ‘he is’? (And what is the root of that?!)

It seems that the more recent the verb, the simpler it is: I google, I googled, we shall google. Etc. I suspect it is true for most languages.

As for pronunciation, English is a nightmare! Try explaining to a foreigner why ‘tough’ is pronounced ‘tuff’, but ‘though’ is pronounced ‘tho’.

Mybe the Latins were right!

But doesn’t lack of education and lack of stimuli (that is, a poor environment) impinge upon intelligence?

I think that’s because people then were still searching and developing, perfecting their way to communicate. This is quite the same for all processes of developments, things get smoother and more efficient.


It strikes me that in older tongues the concept is of words (things) operating in diverse modalities inherent in their marked form-expression, but flexible in their placement in time and space. Such a word operates from within any place in a sentence, creating greater fluidity of expression through its placement. In newer tongues, words (things) are assumed to be neutral and objective atomic states that are given their mode by tighter structural placement - word order - in time and space. This might give the impression of a more solidified reality, plainly expressed by rule. By no means definitive, this is the sense I get particularly from the comparison of Ancient Greek to English for instance.


That’s a big question - with a lot of tricky definitions floating around “What is intelligence” for a start - but quick and dirty thinking on my part says… Nope - nature first, then nurture… If you’ve got a great brain, but spend most of your life looking at a wall - you’re still more intelligent than some geneticly compromised dumbass who sits up to his eyeballs in information all day. Great-brain-boy still has a lot more brain power, in potential, than info-boy. Info-boy is better educated - but that’s all.

And I think rather than a lack of stimuli in the past - there was just different stimuli - and a compensating increase in its subjective value, and a less cluttered attention span to go with it, intelligence will out, whatever its background.

Yes, this is just natural due to the lack of cases and stuff. Whenever cases disappear there is a new need for prepositions or very strict word order rules to deliver the information correctly. To mark what is object, what subject and so forth. That’s clear, so now we can not mix our words in a sentence so freely as the Ancient Greeks could. But the question of the thread remains unanswered. I have asked myself the same so many times and I come to no conclusion. Why was this Proto-Indo-European lannguage equipped with eight cases. Why, for God’s sake, in a time of a very very simple life was that necessary? And how did THIS evelope?

From my point of view the eight cases were quite useless for that time. I would have thought that a language consisting of some loose words like “hunt! hunger! fuck! drink! and so forth” would have done the job aswell… :wink:

Mwwaahh, I want to know this, too, but I have no Idea :frowning:


From my point of view the eight cases were quite useless for that time.

I hope this is said at least partly in jest because their very existence proves their necessity, and in fact suggests that fundamentally the subject as an agent of action was conceived and experienced differently. I am of the suspicion that the isolation of individual subjectivity apart from the filial and cast-basd attachments that otherwise defined him or her, the Western creation of the “self” and “soul” detached metaphysically from the working world has something to do with the reorganization of grammatical ordering, the modularization of words and their fixity in space and time as a necessary aspect of meaning.


I hope this is said at least partly in jest because their very existence proves their necessity, and in fact suggests that fundamentally the subject as an agent of action was conceived and experienced differently.

Yes, I wasn’t completely serious, I wouldn’t argue with that Spinoza quotation. :wink:
I agree. But it remains kind of odd, though. It could indeed be that this has something to do with a different perception and cognition of the surroundings by man in this time.

It´s not true that Ancient Languages were more complex than today. First, we don´t even know really ancient languages. The oldest known are 5 thousand years old, when the human mind was exactly as today in evolution. And these are very few.

So we could take today´s tribal languages and check whether they are simpler than the languages of technological peoples of Eurasia.

That´s when the correlation “technology-language complexity” goes down the drain. There is no special difference in the grammatical complexity of tribal people languages in relation to, say, English, Sanskrit, Latin, Chinese or Russian. Many tribal languages have declensions that would make Cicero insane.

And besides the complexity levels of languages such as Latin, Greek and Sanskrit Proto Indo-European is not much higher if at all than English or any modern languages. Just because they have cases, that doesn´t make them more complex in overall structure, just in case morphology.

And whilst the case system eroded in Wester Europe over the past 3000 years, the Slavic and Baltic languages have increased case morphology in relation even to Proto-Indo-European. Polish and Russian declensions are much harder than Latin or Greek, or even Sanskrit.

Modern Arabic is also more complex in its plural formation than all ancient Semitic languages, such as Hebrew. And no European language except maybe Finnish has such a complex verbal negation system as the English one, with it´s don´ts and didn´ts.

So it´s all an illusion cause by a Westerner´s point of view, and by the fact that different languages are difficult because they are different, not because they are more complex.

Though english may be lacking tenses and masculine/feminine characteristics, that doesn’t mean that grammatically its not any less technical than any other. Try explaining why we have so many different uses for a few words,(IE get). Personally, learning english is probably one of the hardest languages in the western world. I believe that the ancient societies made so many congitives and tenses to their language meaning and simplistic order. If looking at these through an english perspective, yes it is confusing, but some of the older romantic languages can compare more similarities than us.

The thing is that language complexity is WAY more than morphology, and unless you are a trained linguist, you cannoy perceive it. And ancient societies didnt make conjuntives and tenses, no people create their own language structure. Language structure exists by itself and speakers are not aware of its existence.

The grammar of old language seems complicated because you do not understand them.

Even better an explanation than mine.


Try an academic web site. Perhaps email a linguistic professor. He or she may not know the answer, but probably could direct your query to an expert who know regarding the complexities of old languages.

CSUSB’s Rong Chen, English Department Chair is a linguist, his specialty is Grice, but he may be able to direct you to the proper source.

Good luck in your research. Let us know the results. I certainly am interested. :sunglasses:

quoted from: zompist.com/lang30.html#30

Languages keep simplifying-- how did they ever become complex?

This question starts with an observation: the classical Indo-European languages, such as Latin, Greek, Old English, and Sanskrit, were highly inflected, while their modern descendants are not. For instance, French nouns have entirely lost the Latin case system, and French verbs have lost entire classes of forms, such as the passive voice.

It’s natural to ask: how did the classical languages get so complex in the first place? Why are there inflecting languages at all; why don’t they all become isolating, like Chinese?

The answer is that there are also complicating tendencies in language. Habitual idioms can become particles, which can become inflections-- a process called grammaticalization.

For instance, the future and conditional tenses in Romance languages don’t derive from classical Latin, but the infinitive plus forms of ‘to have’. French has rather complicated verb clusters (je ne le lui ai pas donné) which are perhaps best analyzed as single verbs showing both subject and object agreement.

Another example is the plethora of cases in Finnish, many of which derive from postpositions. Roger Lass has pointed out a cycle in Germanic languages where perfectives are developed, merge with the imperfect, and are developed anew.

Chinese is not immune from this phenomenon-- Mandarin already has verbal particles like perfective le, or nominal particles like the possessive/adjectivizing de. The diminutive -r even merges with the preceding syllable; e.g. diân + -r → diâr ‘a bit’.

Also, it may be important to remember that many gifted individuals lived during the ancient prehistoric times, the wheel was probably not invented by a dimwit, ditto the chariot, ships, sails, etc.

LOL, as I was reading this, the movie Goodwill Hunting kept entering my consciousness. Yes, superior intellect is not the product of the level of education, and the high grades earned. Reading more books does not make one more intelligent than another.