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Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure

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.

Lupyan and Dale call this social affect on grammatical patterns the “Linguistic Niche Hypothesis.” Languages evolve within particular socio-demographic niches. Although all languages must be learnable by infants, the introduction of adult learners to some languages (for example, through migration or colonization) means that aspects of a language difficult for adults to learn will be less likely to be passed on to subsequent generations of learners. The result is that languages spoken by more people over larger geographic regions have become morphologically simpler over many generations.

Gary Lupyan, Rick Dale. Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social StructurePLoS ONE, 2010; 5 (1): e8559 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0008559


Weak Evidence for Word-Order Universals: Language Not as ‘Innate’ as Thought?
About 6,000 languages are spoken today worldwide. How this wealth of expression developed, however, largely remains a mystery. A group of researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, the Netherlands, has now found that word-orders in languages from different language families evolve differently.
"Our study shows that different processes occur in different language families," says Michael Dunn. "The evolution of language does not follow one universal set of rules." For example, the "verb-object" pattern influences the "preposition-noun" pattern in the Austronesian and Indo-European languages, but not in the same way, and not in the other two language families. The researchers never found the same pattern in word-order across all language families.
Since the 1950s, the American linguist Noam Chomsky has been defending the view that there are universal similarities between all languages. He claims that this is due to an innate language faculty that functions according to the same principle in any human being. On the other hand, the linguist Joseph Greenberg does not put forward the existence of a genetically determined “universal grammar,” but does speak of a “universal word-order,” whereby the general mechanisms of language-processing in the brain accordingly determine word-order and sentence structure. These new results are inconsistent with both of these views. “Our study suggests that cultural evolution has much more influence on language development than universal factors. Language structure is apparently not so much biologically determined as it is shaped by its ancestry,” explains Stephen Levinson.
Michael Dunn, Simon J. Greenhill, Stephen C. Levinson, Russell D. Gray. Evolved structure of language shows lineage-specific trends in word-order universals.Nature, 2011; DOI: 10.1038/nature09923


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