An application of graph theory to linguistic complexity

Main Article Content

Alexander Piperski


This article introduces a new measure of linguistic complexity which is based on the dual nature of the linguistic sign. Complexity is analyzed as consisting of three components, namely the conceptual complexity (complexity of the signified), the formal complexity (complexity of the signifier) and the form-meaning correspondence complexity. I describe a way of plotting the form-meaning relationship on a graph with two tiers (the form tier and the meaning tier) and apply a complexity measure from graph theory (average vertex degree) to assess the complexity of such graphs. The proposed method is illustrated by estimating the complexity of full noun phrases (determiner + adjective + noun) in English, Swedish, and German. I also mention the limitations and the problems which might arise when using this method.


Download data is not yet available.

Article Details

How to Cite
Piperski, A. (2014). An application of graph theory to linguistic complexity. Yearbook of the Poznań Linguistic Meeting, 1(1), 89-102.


  1. Atkinson, Q.D. 2011. “Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa”. Science 332 (6027). 346–349.
  2. Bonchev, D. and G.A. Buck. 2005. “Quantitative measures of network complexity”. In: Bonchev, D. and D.H. Rouvray (eds.), Complexity in chemistry, biology, and ecology. New York: Springer. 191–236.
  3. Chomsky, N. 2006. Language and mind. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  4. McWhorter, J.H. 2001. “The world’s simplest grammars are creole grammars”. Linguistic Typology 5(2–3). 125–166.
  5. Mel’čuk, I.A. and N.V. Pertsov. 1987. Surface syntax of English: A formal model within the meaning-text framework. Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins.
  6. Nichols, J. 1992. Linguistics diversity in space and time. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  7. Nichols, J., J. Barnes and D.A. Peterson. 2006. “The robust bell curve of morphological complexity”. Linguistic Typology 10(1). 96–106.
  8. Sampson, G., D. Gil and P. Trudgill (eds.). 2009. Language complexity as an evolving variable. Oxford: Oxford University Press
  9. Saussure, F. de. 1916. Cours de linguistique générale. Paris: Éditions Payot & Rivages.
  10. Shosted, R. 2006. “Correlating complexity: A typological approach”. Linguistic Typology 10(1). 1–40.
  11. Trudgill, P. 2012. “On the sociolinguistic typology of linguistic complexity loss”. In: Seifart, F. et al. (eds.), Potentials of language documentation: Methods, analyses, and utilization. (Language Documentation & Conservation Special Publication No. 3.) 90–95.