Lecture: Making sense of Sanskrit morphology
or: What do we mean by "morphological complexity"
An ongoing debate has long opposed a syntagmatic view of morphological units, whereby words are seen as linear combinations of morphemes coerced by derivational rules mapping underlying forms onto surface constructs (ITEM & ARRANGEMENTS), to a paradigmatic view whereby whole words are not only made up of identifiable parts, but are themselves elements of a network of related forms (WORD & PARADIGM). This perspective dichotomy combines with another one regarding the way in which we assess morphological complexity, whether it is the mere number of forms (ENUMERATIVE COMPLEXITY) or the systemic organization underlying the surface patterns (INTEGRATIVE COMPLEXITY) that accounts for the learnability of a morphological system.
Far from being out of touch with reality, these theoretical insights may serve a practical purpose in the didactics of morphologically complex languages, such as Sanskrit, whose reputation of abstruseness and esotericism is essentially unfounded, and arises (in part) from didactic materials sticking to traditional Indian grammar and seeking to give an daunting, exhaustive account of surface accidence, while failing to stress, from the very beginning, the intrinsic unity that underlies the apparent wealth of inflectional paradigms. The definition of as many distinct noun or verb classes as there are similar looking paradigms greatly overstates the overall complexity of the language and is pedagogically counterproductive. It is, in fact, possible to derive the thirty-or-so nominal surface paradigms and the ten conjugation classes from a much smaller number of meta-classes by way of phonological rules and a thorough understanding of how stem alternation patterns relate to one another.
With these principles in mind, it is reasonable to state that, against popular belief or first-sight impressions, Classical (i.e. Pāṇinian) Sanskrit is more regular than other heavily inflected languages such as Latin or Greek, in spite of its greater wealth of morphosyntactic variables and its pervasive use of internal inflection.