Why are languages so different from each other? After comparing more than 2000 languages, the researchers found that languages with more speakers are generally easier than smaller languages. For example, most English nouns can be converted to plural forms by simply adding -s, while the German system is notoriously erratic.
Linguists have suggested that languages adapt to different social structures. "But we do not know if it's the size of the community that makes the difference in complexity," says lead author Limor Raviv of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Perhaps the more widely used languages have simpler grammars because they cover a larger geographic area and speakers are far apart, or because large communities have more contact with outsiders. Together with her colleagues Antje Meyer from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and the Radboud University and Shiri Lev-Ari from the Royal Holloway University in London, Raviv wanted to test whether the size of the community alone plays a role in the design of the grammar.
Wowo-ik "and" wowo-ii "
In order to experimentally test the role of group size, psycholinguists used a communication game in which the participants had to communicate without using a language they knew what The goal of the game was to successfully communicate through various novel scenes using only fictitious nonsense: A speaker would see one of four shapes moving in one direction on a screen , and enter nonsense words to describe the scene (its shape and direction) .The listener would then guess which scene the other person was referring to by selecting one of eight scenes on his own screen Successful Interaction (Correct Guesses) The participants had teamed up with another person in their group each round to a to produce and guess words alternately.
At the beginning of the game, players randomly guess meanings and invent new names. Over the course of several hours, participants began to systematically combine words or subwords to create an actual mini-language. For example, "wowo-ik" in a group meant that a particular shape was going straight up and to the right, while "wowo-ii" meant that the same shape was just going up. With such a regular system, it becomes easier to predict the meaning of new labels ("mop-ik" means another shape goes up and to the right). The participants played either in small groups of four participants or in large groups of eight participants. Would the big groups invent simpler (more systematic) languages than the small groups?
Variability promotes structure
By the end of the experiment, the large groups had indeed created languages with more systematic grammars. "The pressure to create systematic languages is much higher in larger groups," explains Raviv. This is because there are more word versions in the larger groups. To understand each other, members of a large group must overcome this variability and develop a systematic structure. The more variable, the more it has led people to make their language even easier. The researchers also found that the size of the group predicted how similar this group was to the other groups. All major groups achieved similar structural and communication successes. However, the small groups differed greatly: some never developed systematic grammars, while others were very successful. "This could mean that in the real world, larger languages may be more akin to each other than smaller languages," says Raviv.
"Our study shows that the social environment in which languages evolve, and especially the number of people in the community, can influence the grammar of languages," concludes Raviv. "This could possibly explain why some languages have a more complex grammar than others, and the findings also support the notion that an increase in human population was one of the main drivers of natural language development."
What happens to the language when the population grows? That simplifies, researchers say
Larger communities create more systematic languages, Proceedings of the Royal Society B : Biological Sciences (201
Max Planck Institute
Community size is important when people create a new language (2019, 17 July)
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