What happens to language as populations grow? It simplifies, say researchers

January 29, 2018 by Susan Kelley, Cornell University
Credit: CC0 Public Domain

Languages have an intriguing paradox. Languages with lots of speakers, such as English and Mandarin, have large vocabularies with relatively simple grammar. Yet the opposite is also true: Languages with fewer speakers have fewer words but complex grammars.

Why does the size of a population of speakers have opposite effects on vocabulary and ?

Through computer simulations, a Cornell University cognitive scientist and his colleagues have shown that ease of learning may explain the paradox. Their work suggests that , and other aspects of culture, may become simpler as our world becomes more interconnected.

Their study was published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.

"We were able to show that whether something is easy to learn - like words - or hard to learn - like complex grammar - can explain these opposing tendencies," said co-author Morten Christiansen, professor of psychology at Cornell University and co-director of the Cognitive Science Program.

The researchers hypothesized that words are easier to learn than aspects of morphology or grammar. "You only need a few exposures to a word to learn it, so it's easier for words to propagate," he said.

But learning a new grammatical innovation requires a lengthier learning process. And that's going to happen more readily in a smaller speech community, because each person is likely to interact with a large proportion of the community, he said. "If you have to have multiple exposures to, say, a complex syntactic rule, in smaller communities it's easier for it to spread and be maintained in the population."

Conversely, in a large community, like a big city, one person will talk only to a small proportion the . This means that only a few people might be exposed to that complex grammar rule, making it harder for it to survive, he said.

This mechanism can explain why all sorts of complex cultural conventions emerge in small communities. For example, bebop developed in the intimate jazz world of 1940s New York City, and the Lindy Hop came out of the close-knit community of 1930s Harlem.

The simulations suggest that language, and possibly other aspects of culture, may become simpler as our world becomes increasingly interconnected, Christiansen said. "This doesn't necessarily mean that all culture will become overly simple. But perhaps the mainstream parts will become simpler over time."

Not all hope is lost for those who want to maintain complex cultural traditions, he said: "People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification."

His co-authors on the study, "Simpler Grammar, Larger Vocabulary: How Population Size Affects Language," are Florencia Reali of Universidad de los Andes, Colombia, and Nick Chater of University of Warwick, England.

Explore further: The 'myth' of language history: Languages do not share a single history

More information: Florencia Reali et al, Simpler grammar, larger vocabulary: How population size affects language, Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences (2018). DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2017.2586

Related Stories

Recommended for you

Oldest evidence for animals found

October 15, 2018

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside, have found the oldest clue yet of animal life, dating back at least 100 million years before the famous Cambrian explosion of animal fossils.

2 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2018
A8, your comment expresses a reasonable possibility in limited circumstances.

There are other causes. Centralized governments suppressing local languages and even accents. Such as Spain vs Catalonia or China Pinyin vs Tibet.

Think about the strong influence of centralized radio and television on the French, Russian or English speaking world.

The profound influence BBC programs have had on American language usage. In addition to English (or as I call it, Britamerican) as a requirement for all international flight crews. As French was the language of international diplomacy. And German for the sciences and philosophy.

Then there are the oddball and outlier tongues. Teenager slang, thieves cant, advertising & agitprop jargon. Graffiti which evolved out of Hobo markings.

The limits of telegraphy that forced all the users to tighten up and ruthlessly parse their words. That still influences memorandum, military orders and even the internet to this day.
rrwillsj
1 / 5 (1) Feb 01, 2018
A8, my suggest to for you to answer your question. Would be to consider social stratification.

Do the different sub-groups of your society speak differently to their own social group? Than they do to other members of different social standings?

Do you attend an affair with your boss and act and talk differently than you do when you are with your family or friends?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.