Language and social structure

The Adventures of Auck has a great post today about the way languages change as more people begin to speak them. The post discusses several papers on the subject:

Last week saw the publication of Lupyan & Dale (2010) (also discussed here). It’s an analysis of languages from the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS, quite fun to play around with), showing that languages spoken by more people tend to be less morphologically complex (fewer cases, fewer inflections, more of a tendency to express things using separate words rather than with morphology). It’s hypothesised that this is because a greater, more dispersed population will contain more second-language learners, therefore the language will tend to change to be easier to learn by adult learners, who seem to find morphology more difficult to learn than child learners.

This phenomenon has been noted before, but the Lupyan paper  (citation below) goes into more detail than previous work, and provides a lot of evidence for language change in large speaker populations.

Then the post strays into even more interesting territory: does the same thing occur in animal populations? Isbell & Young propose that human evolution, and the growth in number of individuals in social groups (larger group sizes than other apes), may have led to greater complexity in communication systems, leading ultimately to what we might recognize as language. This seems to go against the hypothesis that smaller group size = greater syntactical complexity, but it is thought by some scientists that the development of larger social groups leads to greater intelligence, as individuals must be able to remember other members of the group, and navigate complex social alliances and hierarchies.

Smaller group size = greater complexity seems to apply to birdsong as well: Honda and Okanoya found in 1999 that the song of the domesticated finch is more complex than that of its wild descendants, incorporating more syllables and morphology.

Cool stuff. The three papers discussed are available via the links below, and make very interesting reading.

Lupyan G, Dale R (2010). Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure PLoS ONE, 5 (1) : 10.1371/journal.pone.0008559

Honda, E., & Okanoya, K. (1999). Acoustical and Syntactical Comparisons between Songs of the White-backed Munia (Lonchura striata) and Its Domesticated Strain, the Bengalese Finch (Lonchura striata var. domestica) Zoological Science, 16 (2), 319-326 DOI: 10.2108/zsj.16.319

Isbell, L. & Young (1996). The evolution of bipedalism in hominids and reduced group size in chimpanzees: alternative responses to decreasing resource availability Journal of Human Evolution, 30 (5), 389-397 DOI: 10.1006/jhev.1996.0034


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