Community size matters when people create a new language

phys.org | 1/29/2018 | Staff
dorkyrocker (Posted by) Level 3
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Why are languages so different from each other? After comparing more than 2000 languages, scientists noticed that languages with more speakers are usually simpler than smaller languages. For instance, most English nouns can be turned into plurals by simply adding -s, whereas the German system is notoriously irregular.

Linguists have proposed that languages adapt to fit different social structures. "But we actually don't know whether it is the size of the community that drives the difference in complexity," says lead author Limor Raviv from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics. Perhaps the more widespread languages have simpler grammars because they cover larger geographical space and speakers are far from each other, or because large communities have more contact with outsiders. Together with her colleagues, Antje Meyer from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University and Shiri Lev-Ari from the Royal Holloway University of London, Raviv set out to test whether community size alone plays a role in shaping grammar.

"Wowo-ik" and "wowo-ii"

To test the role of group size experimentally, the psycholinguists used a communication game. In this game, participants had to communicate without using any language they know, leading them to create a new language. The goal of the game was to communicate successfully about different novel scenes, using only invented nonsense words. A speaker would see one of four shapes moving in some direction on a screen and type in nonsense words to describe the scene (its shape and direction). The listener would then guess which scene the other person was referring to, by selecting one of eight scenes on their own screen. Participants received points for every successful interaction (correct guesses). Participants paired up with a different person from their group at every new round, taking turns producing and guessing words.

Start - Game - People

At the start of the game, people would...
(Excerpt) Read more at: phys.org
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