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      Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure

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      1 , * , 2
      PLoS ONE
      Public Library of Science

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          Abstract

          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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          Most cited references41

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          Is the rate of linguistic change constant?

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            German children's comprehension of word order and case marking in causative sentences.

            Two comprehension experiments were conducted to investigate whether German children are able to use the grammatical cues of word order and word endings (case markers) to identify agents and patients in a causative sentence and whether they weigh these two cues differently across development. Two-year-olds correctly understood only sentences with both cues supporting each other--the prototypical form. Five-year-olds were able to use word order by itself but not case markers. Only 7-year-olds behaved like adults by relying on case markers over word order when the two cues conflicted. These findings suggest that prototypical instances of linguistic constructions with redundant grammatical marking play a special role in early acquisition, and only later do children isolate and weigh individual grammatical cues appropriately.
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              Morphology: A Study of the Relation Between Meaning and Form

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                Author and article information

                Contributors
                Role: Editor
                Journal
                PLoS One
                plos
                plosone
                PLoS ONE
                Public Library of Science (San Francisco, USA )
                1932-6203
                2010
                20 January 2010
                : 5
                : 1
                Affiliations
                [1 ]Institute for Research on Cognitive Science and Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, United States of America
                [2 ]Department of Psychology, The University of Memphis, Memphis, Tennessee, United States of America
                University of Utah, United States of America
                Author notes

                Conceived and designed the experiments: GL. Analyzed the data: GL RD. Contributed reagents/materials/analysis tools: GL RD. Wrote the paper: GL RD.

                Article
                09-PONE-RA-13515R1
                10.1371/journal.pone.0008559
                2798932
                20098492
                3c5e8411-1aee-4334-b50a-6555cb1a9b61
                Lupyan, Dale. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.
                Page count
                Pages: 10
                Categories
                Research Article
                Ecology/Behavioral Ecology
                Ecology/Community Ecology and Biodiversity
                Ecology/Evolutionary Ecology
                Evolutionary Biology/Evolutionary Ecology
                Evolutionary Biology/Human Evolution
                Neuroscience/Psychology

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                Uncategorized

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