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      Larger communities create more systematic languages

      1 , 1 , 2 , 1 , 3
      Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
      The Royal Society

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          Abstract

          Understanding worldwide patterns of language diversity has long been a goal for evolutionary scientists, linguists and philosophers. Research over the past decade has suggested that linguistic diversity may result from differences in the social environments in which languages evolve. Specifically, recent work found that languages spoken in larger communities typically have more systematic grammatical structures. However, in the real world, community size is confounded with other social factors such as network structure and the number of second languages learners in the community, and it is often assumed that linguistic simplification is driven by these factors instead. Here, we show that in contrast to previous assumptions, community size has a unique and important influence on linguistic structure. We experimentally examine the live formation of new languages created in the laboratory by small and larger groups, and find that larger groups of interacting participants develop more systematic languages over time, and do so faster and more consistently than small groups. Small groups also vary more in their linguistic behaviours, suggesting that small communities are more vulnerable to drift. These results show that community size predicts patterns of language diversity, and suggest that an increase in community size might have contributed to language evolution.

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          LINGUISTIC, CULTURAL, AND BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY

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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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              Compression and communication in the cultural evolution of linguistic structure.

              Language exhibits striking systematic structure. Words are composed of combinations of reusable sounds, and those words in turn are combined to form complex sentences. These properties make language unique among natural communication systems and enable our species to convey an open-ended set of messages. We provide a cultural evolutionary account of the origins of this structure. We show, using simulations of rational learners and laboratory experiments, that structure arises from a trade-off between pressures for compressibility (imposed during learning) and expressivity (imposed during communication). We further demonstrate that the relative strength of these two pressures can be varied in different social contexts, leading to novel predictions about the emergence of structured behaviour in the wild.
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                Author and article information

                Journal
                Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
                Proc. R. Soc. B
                The Royal Society
                0962-8452
                1471-2954
                July 17 2019
                July 24 2019
                July 17 2019
                July 24 2019
                : 286
                : 1907
                : 20191262
                Affiliations
                [1 ]Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Wundtlaan 1, 6525 XD Nijmegen, The Netherlands
                [2 ]Radboud University, Comeniuslaan 4, 6525 HP Nijmegen, The Netherlands
                [3 ]Royal Holloway University of London, Egham Hill, Egham TW20 0EX, UK
                Article
                10.1098/rspb.2019.1262
                6661353
                31311478
                aaa73d2c-6c3d-4232-8dba-e77a3925ff3d
                © 2019

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