Languages with large vocabularies have simple grammar, study suggests

Languages with large vocabularies, such as Mandarin or English, are simpler grammatically, as opposed to complex languages which possess reduced lexicon.

These two Polynesian women sure do know more grammar rules than any of us.
Credits: Pixabay/Mariamichelle

A team of psychologists composed of Florencia RealiNick Chater, and Morten H. Christiansen, suggests that this linguistic paradox is correlated with the size of the speaker’s population.

For example, Mandarin is spoken by a huge number of native speakers and English is the most common second language learned word-wide. At the opposite end of the spectrum are Polynesian languages, which are used in extremely small communities of native speakers, but exhibit complex grammatical regularities.

Researchers tried to explain this tendency by dividing language innovations into two categories: easy to learn — new words that only need to be heard a few times to catch on — and hard to learn — grammar rules, which need to be heard and repeated multiple times to be fully comprehended in the language.

“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 and co-director of the Cognitive Science Program.

In a large city, where a speaker only has contact with a small part of the population, it is quite facile to innovate through new words. In a small community though, grammar innovations seem to catch on more rapidly, because of the numerous interactions the small number of speakers have with each other.

“If you don’t get enough exposure to more complex patterns, those patterns are likely to disappear, whereas the simpler patterns that are easy to pick up are likely to survive,” Christiansen said. “As the population size of a language community increases, the number of hard-to-learn conventions decreased, whereas the number of easy-to-learn conventions increased,” he added.

Next, researchers designed an experiment to prove their theory. They simulated a community of individuals that communicated with each other, modeled on real-life interactions on a cellphone network.

Each individual had a number of conventions (easy or hard to learn) that they could communicate to one another. When one agent met another, they could either use conventions from their inventory or create a new one and use that instead.

“What we did was vary the size of the community and ran simulations on the different variations to see what happened,” Christiansen said.

The results confirmed scientist’s suspicion: in smaller communities, the more complex conventions survived. In larger communities, easier conventions thrived.

The lead author believes not only languages but also most aspects of culture may become simpler as our world becomes increasingly interconnected. But this doesn’t necessarily mean that all culture will become overly simple. Christiansen thinks that maybe only the mainstream parts will lose complexity over time.

And he actually might be right. Let’s think of music — what is the most popular new genre? Electronic music. The simple musical composition and repetitive sounds of techno music have generated a huge amount of fans and their number appears to be growing each day.

But complex aspects of culture might still have a chance.

“People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification,” Christiansen suggests.

The paper was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B on 24 January, 2018.

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