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The Most Popular Languages Use Shorter Words

Psychologists at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of Memphis released a study published in an issue of PLoS ONE, which focuses on linguistic evolution and why language structures differ throughout the world.

The Relationship Between Social and Linguistic Structures

The study suggests that human languages actually adapt to their environments, much like a biological organism. Languages differ in form and structure, affected by the environments in which they exist; grammar and syntax change depending on where and how they are being learned.

Numerous studies have tried to establish a relationship between social and linguistic structures, but while previous studies have suggested that the relationship is based on historical drift, this study challenges that notion.

Instead, it contrasts with the traditional approach by focusing on whether social environments are associated with certain linguistic properties.

Widely-Spoken Languages Have Less Grammatical Complexity

Gary Lupyan, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Psychology in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences, and Rick Dale, an assistant professor in psychology at the University of Memphis, have discovered that there are relationships between the demographic properties of a language, which create varying levels of linguistic diversity.

Their study indicates that commonly spoken languages spread over a large geographical area are less complex (grammatically) than those spoken by smaller groups.

Languages with many speakers spread across geographical locations actually have similar grammars and morphology. These languages also tend to be less specific and, ultimately, shorter.

The study attempted to better support these facts by conducting a large-scale statistical analysis of more than 2,000 languages using a combination of demographic sources and the World Atlas of Language Structures (WALS).

Their findings suggest that as adults learn a language, they tend to make changes such as simplifying inflectional morphology and increasing flexibility in word order. Certain features that are harder to learn will be rejected and become less likely to be passed on to future generations of learners. This simpler construction facilitates the language’s survival, much like how in nature organisms either adapt or die.

In comparison, languages that are spoken by fewer individuals tend to be over-specified and far more complex to learn and speak.

On the whole, the fewer speakers of a language there are, the more tightly woven their social bond and the easier it is to pass on their language to descendants—but the less likely it is to spread outside their social circles.

The degree and specificity of morphological encoding can reach surprising levels.

For example, comparing German and English the study found that “where the surface structures of English and German contrast, English is less specified, leaving more to context,” meaning “German speakers are forced to make certain semantic distinctions which can regularly be left unspecified in English” (p. 28). To illustrate, the psychologists highlight how “German obligatorily specifies the direction of motion in the place adverbs here/there/where. Compare: hier/her; dort/hin; wo/wohin. English can specify direction using to and from (“where to” versus “where from”), but such specification is optional and is generally omitted.”

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Evolutionary Strategies in Particular Niches

These findings indicate that language structures are shaped and adapted by the environment (niche) in which they are learned and used.

“English, for all its confusing spelling and exceptions – if a baker bakes, what does a grocer do? – has a relatively simple grammar,” psychologist Lupyan stated, according to Penn News.

“Verbs are easy to conjugate and nouns are mostly pluralized by adding ‘s.’ In comparison, a West African language like Hausa has dozens of ways to make nouns plural and in many languages – Turkish, Aymara, Ladakhi, Ainu – verbs like ‘to know’ have to include information about the origin of the speaker’s knowledge.”

“This information is often conveyed using complex rules, which the most widely-spoken languages on earth like English and Mandarin lack.”


The psychologists concluded that morphological complexity negatively correlated with number of speakers and when measured across all features of language, including: type, case, verb morphology, agreement, evidentials/possibility, negation/plurality, tense, aspect, mood, possession, articles and demonstrative pronouns.

Ultimately, the study identifies an important factor in the equation for popularity of language — keep it short and simple — and more, the results help lovers of language better understand the way that language works, as they illustrate language adapting to its surroundings like the organism that it is.

Interested in the study of languages and want to explore how we communicate as people? Try taking a Listen & Learn course in a foreign tongue as your first step. Contact us for more information about what you can expect to learn and how to choose the best one for you.