A new study has shown that language structure may be more closely tied to social structure than previously thought.

Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Memphis have published a new study on linguistic evolution that challenges long-held views of how languages became so different. Traditional thinking holds that languages developed because of “random change and historical drift”. The differences in space and time throughout history have evolved the separation between English and Mandarin, for example.

The “Linguistic Niche Hypothesis”, however, argues that languages evolve within particular socio-demographic niches.

The researchers found striking relationships between the demographic properties of a language — such as its population and global spread — and the grammatical complexity of those languages. Languages having the most speakers — and those that have spread around the world — were found to have far simpler grammars, specifically morphology, than languages spoken by few people and in circumscribed regions. For example, languages spoken by more than 100,000 people are almost six times more likely to have simple verb conjugations compared to languages spoken by fewer than 100,000 people.

Larger populations tend to have simpler pronoun and number systems and a smaller number of cases and genders and in general do not employ complex prefixing or suffixing rules in their grammars. A consequence is that languages with long histories of adult learners have become easier to learn over time. Although a number of researchers have predicted such relationships between social and language structure, this is the first large-scale statistical test of this idea.

The results draw connections between the evolution of human language and biological organisms. Just as very distantly related organisms converge on evolutionary strategies in particular niches, languages may adapt to the social environments in which they are learned and used. (Source: Science Daily)