Monday, 25 January 2010

Language Structure and Social Structure

Last week saw the publication of Lupyan & Dale (2010) (also discussed here). It's an analysis of languages from the World Atlas of Langauge 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 tenancy 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.

The number of speakers in a language certainly varies a great deal. Lupyan & Dale emphasise this by pointing out that the median number of speakers in a language is 7,000 while the mean is 828,000. The number of second-language learners is also not a trivial influence in modern times. For example, only about 30% of English speakers are native speakers. Even more extreme is Malay with only 15% of speakers learning it as a first language.

In comparison, Siberian Yupik Eskimo has essentially no non-native speakers (from supporting data). In such communities, there is a greater pressure for the language to be learnable by children, therefore it retains morphological complexity.

The changes introduced by adults are likely to be acquired by children. Thus, Lupyan and Dale talk about exoteric and esoteric languages. The changes introduced by adults are likely to be acquired by children. Although the paper also takes into consideration the fact that children do not always learn from their parents:
It has been argued that there is no automatic transmission of the “mother tongue” from parents to offspring (47). For example, in a survey of 188 individuals in Senegal who listed Bambara as their native language, Bambara was the father’s native language in 16%, the mother’s in 19%, the native language of both parents in 26%, and the native language of neither parent in 39% (47).
Interestingly (for me at least), Welsh is pointed out in the regression graph and seems to fit the pattern - it has relatively few speakers and a high complexity score (calculated by "summing the number of features for which each language relies on lexical versus morphological coding and subtracting the total from zero"). While Welsh speakers were dispersed throughout Britain in the 8th century (and a Welsh speaking colony remains in Argentina), there are probably more child speakers than adult speakers currently. However, contact with English has introduced a bias for lexical forms over morphological forms (at least on my schoolyard - consider "Rydw i'n ysgrifennu" vs. "Ysgrifennaf"). Coupled with a pressure from language conservation groups to make Welsh more accessible to learners (see my post here), Welsh may indeed become less morphologically complicated.

Also interesting is the comparison with language data from Ethnologue, noting that the WALS seems to under-represent sub-Saharan Arfican languages (here). It appears that the Ethnologue is still the best source of data on population sizes, even though it appears not to be good enough to calculate the number of bilingual speakers (here).

One question is to what extent this phenomenon of exocentrism is a modern one. Large social groups and extensive travel only really took off in the last thousand years, so it's not clear if these dynamics can be scaled backwards in time to aid study of the evolution of language. It's been argued that human evolution allowed larger group sizes in comparison to chimpanzees (Isbell & Young, 1996), did this force communication to become more structured? Was language primarily lexically-based and used by adults?

Perhaps, however, it could be applied to animals - do songbirds living in larger, migratory flocks have simpler song morphology than those in smaller, more localised ones? The complexity of the domesticated finch is certainly more complex than its wild descendants (Honda & Okanoya, 1999). Could simply reducing the number of 'speakers' be an influence?

It's a fascinating article, and has already stimulated a lot of debate.

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

1 comment:

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