Bigger languages are simpler

Alex sends this:

According to research quoted by the Economist, the number of speakers of a language correlates best with its lack of complecity.

The researchers are Gary Lupyan of the University of Pennsylvania and Rick Dale of the University of Memphis. The research is described in the Public Library of Science.

The number of speakers of each language correlated best with morphological complexity, better than the area the language is spread over or the number of neighbours. This makes sense because a language with a large population of speakers has probably already been learned by many non-natives in the past. A language with many neighbours today would be, by this rationale, more likely to become simpler in the future, if the language spreads. Of course, languages in families share certain features, but Dr Lupyan and Dr Dale found that their results were significant even when language family and region were factored out.

Andrew notes the link between cultural and linguistic diversity reported in resurgence and SEED – which may be reinforced by this research?


About thenextwavefutures

Andrew Curry is a consultant who specialises in futures for The Futures Company, based in London. All views are personal, etc.

One comment

  1. Alex Steer

    A couple of cautions on the interpretation of these results.

    The argument about child language learning explains why languages develop complex features but not why complexity is lost for languages with more speakers. A language having more speakers doesn’t help an individual child learn it! This model would imply that morphological simplification best serves adults, who have already learned the language. However, language change tends to be generational in nature and features modifications are (according to the limited available historical evidence) driven predominantly by young people.

    An alternative explanation for loss of complexity, not explored in the Economist, derives from the unsurprising correlation between successful languages and successful societies. The world’s major languages have been the languages of the world’s major economic, agricultural, industrial and technological powers, where life has been lived less precariously for most people. If linguistic complexity improves clarity and phonetic economy, might it be an adaptive response? (To be glib, you might live longer if your language can express ‘look out, there’s a lion behind you’ quite economically.) Securer societies could be linguistically lazier because they can get away with it.

    The point about language contact as a driving feature of simplification is important. There’s evidence for this as a factor in the loss of the case system in medieval England, for example, particularly in the north east where both English and Anglo-Danish evidently simplified to improve mutual understanding among speakers.

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