Overdevelopment of Languages: Grammaticalization and Possession

From the Lecture Series: The Story of Human Language

By John McWhorter, Ph.D., Columbia University

Languages overgrow into big systems of grammar with numerous decorative elements. This overdevelopment of languages leads to unnecessary grammatical points that complicate the language but are not essential to communicate meanings. Grammaticalization is one of the main sources of this phenomenon. Read on to see how it materializes in different languages.

An old big library with many shelves.
Overdevelopment of languages is so common in all languages that it is sometimes difficult to spot. (Image: Ociacia/Shutterstock)

Overdevelopment of languages may seem exaggerated or unreal at first, but it is common in all languages. Languages gain parts that are not necessary semantically but are essential grammatical parts. Are they functional?

Non-Functional Parts of Languages

Grammaticalization is often the source of the overdevelopment of grammars. However, it is not always a functional or necessary aspect. For example, pas in French is a marker of negation that grammaticalizes.

This is a transcript from the video series The Story of Human Language. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

There are many other examples in all languages, including evidential markers. Evidential markers are language items like the past tense -ed in English, with no independent meaning. However, they change the meaning of the meaningful words they are attached to. Another instance of such overdevelopments of language is possession.

Learn more about how language changes-many directions.


In English, possession is conveyed with the verb have. If a person says they have a couch, it means they have bought it and possess it. However, having a mother is also described with the same verb, but conveys a different meaning. Nobody buys a mother; they just have a mother related to them. The same verb applies when a person says, “I have an ear,” but it is a totally different concept.

Man sitting and reading inside book.
Grammaticalization is a big factor in overdevelopment of languages and adds to the complexities and unnecessary rules of a language. (Image: Carlos Amarillo/Shutterstock)

Some languages, unlike English, have overdeveloped to show these differences grammatically. Mandinka, a West African language, differentiates between owning something and the kind of having where something is on you/ in you/ about you/ inherent to you. For example, your father is i faamaa, which literally means you and father. However, if there are possession and ownership involved, they have a different grammar.

Koloŋo is well. To say your well, one says i la koloŋo to mark the possession. Having a father and an ear is different and is called inalienable possession.

Learn more about language mixture-grammar.

Inalienable Possession

A person cannot be alienated from their father or their ear. In contrast, there is alienable possession that refers to things like couches and wells. Distinguishing these two possessions is a sign of the overdevelopment of languages. Many languages, including English, do not even consider that distinction.

Interestingly, the fact is that a significant number of languages in the world have that, especially indigenous languages. In languages that do not make this distinction, the context makes it clear. The next example of the overdevelopment of languages is the use of the reflexive.

Reflexive Sentences

A simple reflexive sentence is ‘I wash myself’. However, Romance or Germanic languages take it to a higher level through overdevelopment. In English, we say, ‘I sit down’ but in Spanish, we say ‘I sit myself’: yo me siento.

In French, to say ‘I am angry’, you should say je me fâche, which means ‘I am angering myself’. They say it as a reflexive because anger is something that happens inside a person yet you are making a person angry: yourself. Je fâche is an incomplete sentence because nobody knows who is made angry.

In German, remembering is something that happens inside a person. Thus, ich erinnere mich shows that you remember, while it literally means ‘I remember myself.’ In French, it is also je me souviens with the same literal meaning.

The logic behind reflexivity at this level is that when there is a feeling or something happens inside a person, and it is operating upon them. It makes sense, but it is decoratively unnecessary. It is yet another case of overdevelopment of a language. Even Russian has it. In Russian, ‘I am tired’ is said as ‘I tire myself’.

As strange as it may seem, especially for languages that have this feature, gender marking is another overdeveloped feature.

Learn more about language mixture-words.

Gender Marking

Many European languages have grammatical gender. It ranges from easier forms, like Spanish, to very complex ones where predicting the gender of a word is not so easy. For example, in Spanish, the hat is male – el sombrero – but the house is female – la casa. The endings -o and -a show the gender here, but not all languages are as simple as Spanish.

In French, le bateau means ‘the boat’ and is male. La maison means ‘the house’, and it is female, but unlike Spanish, the ending does not indicate gender. German adds a third neuter gender, which does not mean the male and female will no longer apply to stuff.

A teacher writes English grammar rules on the blackboard.
Grammatical gender is common in many languages, but not necessary. Like many other grammatical developments, communication does not need it. (Image: Undrey/Shutterstock)

For example, the spoon, the fork, and the knife in German are der Löffeldie Gabel, and das Messer. The spoon is male, the fork is female, and the knife is neutral. The point is, even without them, the language would easily and accurately convey meanings, but it eventually overdevelops and includes things that are unnecessary.

Overdevelopment of languages happens through time, and when babies are learning the language, they simply learn all the rules without asking why. Thus, the overdeveloped complexities pass on from generation to generation.

Common questions about Overdevelopment of Languages

Q: What does overdevelopment mean?

Overdevelopment of languages means that languages tend to develop beyond what is necessary for communication. This is especially seen in grammars, where the perfect tense is a familiar example.

Q: Is grammar a part of overdevelopment?

Grammars are essential parts of the overdevelopment of languages. Grammaticalization eventually adds many unnecessary elements to a language, such as grammatical endings.

Q: Is possession a necessary element?

Possession is another item that emerged through the overdevelopment of languages. The possessive ‘s is an example of parts that are unnecessary in communication, but necessary in grammar.

Q: What is a reflexive sentence?

English has no reflexive sentences, but in languages like German and French, they are common. For example, je me fâche in French literally means I am angering myself and is used to say I am angry. This is another example of the overdevelopment of languages.

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