Case inflection and the functional indeterminacy of nouns: A cross-linguistic analysis

AbstractPrior research shows that languages balance syntactic complexity against morphological complexity. We explore this relationship using a new measure of syntactic complexity, functional indeterminacy, which measures the aggregate uncertainty of mapping from lexical items to syntactic function. We predict that greater functional indeterminacy for nouns will correlate with languages having case systems, and for those with case systems, increased number of cases. We operationalize indeterminacy as the simple and normalized conditional entropies of the summed frequency distributions of nouns across syntactic dependencies. We compute these measures for 44 languages. We then correlate the measures with presence and number of cases in two regression analyses, controlling for genetic affiliation between languages. Results show that as the functional indeterminacy of nouns increases, languages are more likely to have case systems, and if so, to have more cases. These data provide new support for the functionally motivated relationship between morphological and syntactic complexity.

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