BRIEF: Grammar Becomes Simpler in Larger Populations

Researchers find that complex cultural practices tend to proliferate in more niche groups.

Composite image by Yuen Yiu. [Source image: Espen Sundve

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Yuen Yiu, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- If you've ever tried to learn the Finnish, Czech or Basque languages, you may find their grammars are a bit more complicated than that of English. A new study may help explain why languages with lots of speakers, such as English and Mandarin, usually have simpler grammars.

Researchers from Cornell University in Ithaca developed a computer simulation that mimics the ways a language is used within a population and how it evolves over time. They discovered that in large populations, simpler elements such as words tend to proliferate, but more difficult ones, such as complicated grammar, tend to suffer. That’s because individuals in big populations interact with more people but have fewer repeat encounters. The repeat encounters, the researchers argue, help people learn difficult concepts like grammar.

The results, published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B last week, also match the fact that languages such as English and Mandarin boast relatively large vocabularies.

Interestingly, the effect is reversed in smaller populations: simpler elements suffer while difficult ones flourish. According to the researchers, this can also help explain the tendency for other complex cultural phenomena to emerge in small groups -- from the birth of bebop in the intimate jazz world of 1940s New York City, to secret handshakes developed among members of a fraternity.

"This doesn't necessarily mean that all culture will become overly simple. But perhaps the mainstream parts will become simpler over time," said Morten Christiansen, a psychologist and co-author of the paper, in a press release.

This may imply that preserving complex cultural traditions will require a conscious effort, especially in a globalizing world. "People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification," Christiansen said.

Author Bio & Story Archive

Yuen Yiu is a former staff writer for Inside Science. He's a Ph.D. physicist and fluent in Cantonese and Mandarin. Follow Yuen on Twitter: @fromyiutoyou.