Easy languages spread faster and wider

language tile pieces

Languages spoken by more people and those spoken over a wider geographical area tend to have simpler grammar, according to a new study by Department of Psychology Post-doctoral Fellow Gary Lupyan and a colleague.

“We looked at ways to make plurals, noun-subject agreement, various aspects of grammar and asked, ‘Is there a relationship between where and by whom a language is spoken and its complexity?’” Lupyan says.

Their findings were straightforward enough: Yes. Sí. Oui. Ja.

The paper, published in the Public Library of Science by Lupyan and a colleague from the University of Memphis, found that languages spoken by more people tend to have simpler pronoun and number systems. The researchers didn’t put an overall complexity ranking on each language they studied (they didn’t look at sound systems); rather, they examined the complexity of the structure of the language.

For instance, Lupyan says, when the English phrase, “I read the book,” is translated to a language like Russian, “the word ‘read’ would specify the gender of the speaker, and you would have to specify whether the person finished reading the book or not. We can express that in English by saying, ‘I finished reading the book’ or ‘I read the whole book,’ but you would do it in a non-grammatical way.” Lupyan, a native Russian speaker, adds, “the word would provide that information.”

“It’s what you can communicate versus what you have to communicate,” he says. “In some languages, what you have to communicate is very elaborate. In other languages there are evidentials where you have to specify how you came to know something. It’s part of the grammar whether you saw it firsthand or someone told you, whether it’s common sense. In English you can use other words, but you wouldn’t have to. The question is, how much does the word encode?”

Although all languages must be learnable by infants, Lupyan says, languages that spread and are picked up by adults become less complicated over time.

“The popularity of a language is a function of various historical factors,” he says. “The fact that English has become this global language is due to history, not the structure of English. But as a language becomes more popular, as it spreads beyond its original place, different types of people with different backgrounds and cultures need to learn it,” and the more it needs to adhere to these learnability principals.

“If Navajo were to become more widespread it would become more simple. It’s an example of a language that’s not popular and not spoken by many people for historical reasons. If it were, it would change.”

Lupyan and his colleague studied more than 2,200 languages in the World Atlas of Language Structures. English, one of the world’s most popular languages with roughly 1 billion speakers, was not the simplest language in the sample, but it is on the simple side of the scale when compared to languages such as Icelandic and Russian.

“Even those European languages are much simpler compared to many native American and Australian languages,” Lupyan says. “Dyirbal is a language that’s dying out. It’s an Aboriginal language spoken in Australia. It’s a complex system of nouns where the way that a word is used depends on the kind of word it is.”

The study challenges the conventional wisdom that languages differ in arbitrary ways.

“We’re providing hard evidence that complexity varies by population,” Lupyan says. “The theory behind it can be debated, but the data are what they are. We report these patterns, and it’s up to the linguists to examine how and why they come about.”

Lupyan stresses that it’s important to note that the study doesn’t speak to particular languages.

“It’s sort of like if you’re running an experiment and have 50 subjects, you’re looking at patterns among the subjects,” he says. “It’s not correct to point to a specific subject and say, ‘Why is this person this way?’ We’re treating languages as subjects. As population goes up, what happens to the structure? There are of course many outliers, many reasons why a language doesn’t conform to the prediction, but the overall pattern is there.”

Originally published on March 4, 2010