Krielke, Marie-Pauline

Cross-linguistic Dependency Length Minimization in scientific language: Syntactic complexity reduction in English and German in the Late Modern period

Languages in Contrast, 24, pp. 133 - 163, 2024, ISSN 1387-6759.

We use Universal Dependencies (UD) for the study of cross-linguistic diachronic syntactic complexity reduction. Specifically, we look at whether and how scientific English and German minimize the length of syntactic dependency relations in the Late Modern period (ca. 1650–1900). Our linguistic analysis follows the assumption that over time, scientific discourse cross-linguistically develops towards an increasingly efficient syntactic code by minimizing Dependency Length (DL) as a factor of syntactic complexity. For each language, we analyse a large UD-annotated scientific and general language corpus for comparison. While on a macro level, our analysis suggests that there is an overall diachronic cross-linguistic and cross-register reduction in Average Dependency Length (ADL), on the micro level we find that only scientific language shows a sentence length independent reduction of ADL, while general language shows an overall decrease of ADL due to sentence length reduction. We further analyse the syntactic constructions responsible for this reduction in both languages, showing that both scientific English and German increasingly make use of short, intra-phrasal dependency relations while long dependency relations such as clausal embeddings become rather disfavoured over time.