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      Language Structures May Adapt to the Sociolinguistic Environment, but It Matters What and How You Count: A Typological Study of Verbal and Nominal Complexity

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          Abstract

          In this article we evaluate claims that language structure adapts to sociolinguistic environment. We present the results of two typological case studies examining the effects of the number of native (=L1) speakers and the proportion of adult second language (=L2) learners on language structure. Data from more than 300 languages suggest that testing the effect of population size and proportion of adult L2 learners on features of verbal and nominal complexity produces conflicting results on different grammatical features. The results show that verbal inflectional synthesis adapts to the sociolinguistic environment but the number of genders does not. The results also suggest that modeling population size together with proportion of L2 improves model fit compared to modeling them independently of one another. We thus argue that surveying population size alone may be insufficient to detect possible adaptation of linguistic structure to the sociolinguistic environment. Rather, other features, such as proportion of L2 speakers, prestige and social network density, should be studied, and if demographic numeric data are used, they should not be used in isolation but rather in competition with other sociolinguistic features. We also suggest that not all types of language structures within a given grammatical domain are equally sensitive to the effect of sociolinguistic variables, and that more exploratory studies are needed before we can arrive at a reliable set of grammatical features that may be potentially most (and least) adaptive to social structures.

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          Most cited references51

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          Conclusions beyond support: overconfident estimates in mixed models

          Mixed-effect models are frequently used to control for the nonindependence of data points, for example, when repeated measures from the same individuals are available. The aim of these models is often to estimate fixed effects and to test their significance. This is usually done by including random intercepts, that is, intercepts that are allowed to vary between individuals. The widespread belief is that this controls for all types of pseudoreplication within individuals. Here we show that this is not the case, if the aim is to estimate effects that vary within individuals and individuals differ in their response to these effects. In these cases, random intercept models give overconfident estimates leading to conclusions that are not supported by the data. By allowing individuals to differ in the slopes of their responses, it is possible to account for the nonindependence of data points that pseudoreplicate slope information. Such random slope models give appropriate standard errors and are easily implemented in standard statistical software. Because random slope models are not always used where they are essential, we suspect that many published findings have too narrow confidence intervals and a substantially inflated type I error rate. Besides reducing type I errors, random slope models have the potential to reduce residual variance by accounting for between-individual variation in slopes, which makes it easier to detect treatment effects that are applied between individuals, hence reducing type II errors as well.
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            Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure

            Background Languages differ greatly both in their syntactic and morphological systems and in the social environments in which they exist. We challenge the view that language grammars are unrelated to social environments in which they are learned and used. Methodology/Principal Findings We conducted a statistical analysis of >2,000 languages using a combination of demographic sources and the World Atlas of Language Structures— a database of structural language properties. We found strong relationships between linguistic factors related to morphological complexity, and demographic/socio-historical factors such as the number of language users, geographic spread, and degree of language contact. The analyses suggest that languages spoken by large groups have simpler inflectional morphology than languages spoken by smaller groups as measured on a variety of factors such as case systems and complexity of conjugations. Additionally, languages spoken by large groups are much more likely to use lexical strategies in place of inflectional morphology to encode evidentiality, negation, aspect, and possession. Our findings indicate that just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used. As adults learn a language, features that are difficult for them to acquire, are less likely to be passed on to subsequent learners. Languages used for communication in large groups that include adult learners appear to have been subjected to such selection. Conversely, the morphological complexity common to languages used in small groups increases redundancy which may facilitate language learning by infants. Conclusions/Significance We hypothesize that language structures are subjected to different evolutionary pressures in different social environments. Just as biological organisms are shaped by ecological niches, language structures appear to adapt to the environment (niche) in which they are being learned and used. The proposed Linguistic Niche Hypothesis has implications for answering the broad question of why languages differ in the way they do and makes empirical predictions regarding language acquisition capacities of children versus adults.
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              Phonemic diversity supports a serial founder effect model of language expansion from Africa.

              Human genetic and phenotypic diversity declines with distance from Africa, as predicted by a serial founder effect in which successive population bottlenecks during range expansion progressively reduce diversity, underpinning support for an African origin of modern humans. Recent work suggests that a similar founder effect may operate on human culture and language. Here I show that the number of phonemes used in a global sample of 504 languages is also clinal and fits a serial founder-effect model of expansion from an inferred origin in Africa. This result, which is not explained by more recent demographic history, local language diversity, or statistical non-independence within language families, points to parallel mechanisms shaping genetic and linguistic diversity and supports an African origin of modern human languages.
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                Author and article information

                Contributors
                Journal
                Front Psychol
                Front Psychol
                Front. Psychol.
                Frontiers in Psychology
                Frontiers Media S.A.
                1664-1078
                14 August 2018
                2018
                : 9
                Affiliations
                [1] 1Department of Languages, University of Helsinki , Helsinki, Finland
                [2] 2Department of Linguistics, Stockholm University , Stockholm, Sweden
                Author notes

                Edited by: Antonio Benítez-Burraco, Universidad de Sevilla, Spain

                Reviewed by: Damian Ezequiel Blasi, Universitt Zürich, Switzerland; Simon James Greenhill, Max-Planck-Institut für Menschheitsgeschichte, Germany

                *Correspondence: Francesca Di Garbo francesca@ 123456ling.su.se

                This article was submitted to Language Sciences, a section of the journal Frontiers in Psychology

                Article
                10.3389/fpsyg.2018.01141
                6102949
                30e2c85a-3685-400a-92d2-4d45dbd9b00f
                Copyright © 2018 Sinnemäki and Di Garbo.

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) and the copyright owner(s) are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

                Page count
                Figures: 12, Tables: 7, Equations: 0, References: 90, Pages: 22, Words: 17832
                Funding
                Funded by: Academy of Finland 10.13039/501100002341
                Award ID: 296212
                Categories
                Psychology
                Original Research

                Clinical Psychology & Psychiatry
                inflectional synthesis,grammatical gender,language complexity,population size,second language learning,sociolinguistic environment,language typology,adaptation

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