A Language's Popularity Could Influence Its Grammar and Vocabulary

The number of people who speak a language seems to affect how new words and structures spread.

Students sit near a classroom wall with notes stuck to it naming languages and words in those languages.
Children attend a language class for migrants in Berlin. (Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters)

It’s a peculiar observation that the more people speak a language, the simpler its grammar tends to be. English and Mandarin, for instance, have notably straightforward structures. On the other hand, languages spoken in just a single mountain valley or village can have gorgeously intricate grammars, full of gender and cases and declensions. They also tend to have rather small vocabularies. Meanwhile, the vocabularies of widely spoken languages are enormous.

What is going on here? What connection might there be between how many people speak a language and what it is like?

There are many things that could be at play, from the level of historical trends all the way down to how parents speak to their children. It also isn’t exactly clear which comes first: lots of speakers, or simple grammar? Still, the researchers behind one recent paper wondered whether the fact that grammar is relatively hard to learn and new words relatively easy might be enough to explain this trend, at least in broad strokes. They built a mathematical model in which individuals in small and large social networks have conversations and occasionally learn new words or ways of saying something from each other. What the team found was that even in this simple, stick-figure version of the world, the same patterns emerge. The results suggest that these general rules, along with the number of speakers, can influence how a language grows and changes.

When it comes to learning a new language, grasping unfamiliar words is not the hardest part. Practice with flash cards, or keep your ears open, and you’ll pick things up fairly quickly. But for most people, grammar takes a longer time. “We know from studies of second-language learning that if you have to learn a language with complex morphology, that is really hard for ... learners to pick up,” says Morten Christiansen, a cognitive scientist at Cornell University who is an author of the paper. If your first language doesn’t flag tables as feminine, or group nouns into clusters according to shape, it is going to take a little while for you to learn to do it in your second. Even in first languages, learning grammar takes a while.

In the model, the researchers represented this with some hard-to-learn linguistic changes, standing in for grammar. Words were represented by easy-to-learn ones. With an “easy” innovation, others only had to hear it once before they too would start using it. With a “hard” one, an individual had to hear it twice before adopting it. Then the researchers ran their model again and again, watching to see how things played out in social networks ranging from 30 to 500 hypothetical people.

As these innovations spread, it became clear that indeed, in large groups, new words spread quickly. There were more individuals to coin them, too, generating a lot of new vocabulary. In contrast, innovations in grammar spread slowly, as people might not have a second meeting for quite a while.

Meanwhile, in small groups, because the individuals were more likely to reencounter each other frequently, grammar innovations took root much more easily. “If somebody has come up with a hard-to-learn convention, you’re more likely to come across it more frequently in your lifetime and learn it,” Christiansen says. New words were fewer than in large groups, stemming simply from the fact that there were not so many people.

This suggests that the number of people who speak a language may shape it in ways they don’t realize. Furthermore, the model could apply to other aspects of culture that are easy or hard to transmit to other people, like dance, or music, or rituals, Christiansen notes. Small groups might generate very complex, perhaps self-referential or internally consistent, styles that become more standardized when larger numbers of people adopt them. “Gradually, as it becomes more popular ... it becomes easier for more people to pick it up,” Christiansen says. “But it also becomes simpler in nature.”