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Why larger communities create more systematic languages

Why larger communities create more systematic languages
07 Oct
An experiment that asked different sized groups to invent a new language has revealed that community size plays an important role in determining the type of language that develops

The differences between the 6,800 or so languages that currently exist in the world are remarkable. From Cantonese, in which a speaker must perfect six different tones each of which change the meaning of a single word, to Georgian, in which verb endings vary not just according to the tense or plurality (as in English), but in up to 200 other ways. Grammatical and morphological systems vary hugely. What is the source of this linguistic diversity? And why might some languages be so much harder to learn than others?

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Many researchers have dedicated their time to answering these questions. In particular, extensive research has been carried out into the effect of the physical environment on the development of language. As one theory has it, languages typically spoken in very dry and cold climates (Siberia, for example) tend not to involve tonal distinctions between words (as is the case in Cantonese) – the simple reason being that it is harder to precisely control the vocal cords in dry environments.

Now research is being carried out into the role of social environments on language development. Limor Raviv, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen is working on this topic. In a recent study, she sought to answer one social question in particular – does the size of a community affect the development of a new language?

To find out the answer, Raviv designed an experiment in which two groups – one with four participants and one with eight – were set the task of creating a new language to describe the same set of 23 simple scenes. Within each group a ‘speaker’ would see one of four shapes moving in some direction on a screen and type in nonsense words to describe the scene (both its shape and direction). The ‘listener’ would then guess which scene the other person was referring to, by selecting one of eight scenes on their own screen. Participants received points for every successful interaction.

Raviv discovered that community size did indeed affect the outcome. In the main, the larger groups created languages with more systematic grammars than the smaller ones. For example, one large group created the term ‘wowo-ik’ to refer to a specific shape moving up and right, and used ‘wowo-ii’ to refer to the same shape moving straight up. A regular system like this made it easier to predict the meaning of new labels (so ‘mop-ik’ meant a different shape going up and right).

It has already been noted in previous studies that this phenomenon – in which languages spoken in larger communities typically have more systematic grammatical structures – exists. For example, English, now one of the world’s most widely spoken languages, is structurally quite simple when compared to many others. While it might have a large vocabulary, its grammatical structure is relatively easy to follow and even irregularities are still grouped in systematic ways.

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Previous hypotheses as to why this might be the case have sought to identify some kind of external influence. One suggestion has been that larger groups have more adult second-language learners who, if the pressure is big enough, result in the simplification of a language. But Raviv now has another theory more directly related to the original community size in which the language developed.

‘I believe that you may get this effect just because the language is spoken by a bigger community and because it passes through more minds,’ she says. ‘The language evolves in a context where more people need to negotiate about it, to reason about it, and there’s more contact with strangers. So we hypothesise that languages that develop in bigger communities evolve to be more systematic to accommodate the difficulty in communicating with more people that you know less about. Highly elaborate structures that really rely on intimate familiarity between every member of the group just can’t hold in a big community.’

There are clear advantages to the type of systems typically developed by large communities, she argues. ‘It really allows productivity and flexibility. So even two strangers that have never interacted before about something they’ve never seen before can immediately use their language and understand each other. They don’t need any prior negotiation.’

Raviv is now taking this study further and attempting to teach the newly-created languages to other participants in order to verify whether more structured languages really are easier to learn. In doing so she may be able to challenge a widely held assumption – that all languages are similarly easy to acquire. ‘Actually, some studies suggest that this is not the case,’ she says. ‘Some languages are harder to learn, even for children. For example, Danish is considered to be a really hard language for children to learn and there is evidence that they master some features much later than speakers of other languages, even related ones such as Norwegian or Swedish.’

None of this, Raviv makes very clear, makes any one language better than another. ‘All languages are equally good at expressing a message,’ she says. But experiments such as these might just help us to understand why we speak the way we do and why learning some languages fills us with much more fear than others.

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