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.