The evolution of complex grammars: New study measures grammatical complexity of 1,314 languages

The number of grammatical differences that various languages create varies widely around the globe. Even amongst languages that are closely related, this variance can be seen. For instance, the phrase hunden, which means "the dog," is used interchangeably by speakers of Swedish, Danish, and Norwegian to indicate that a dog has been located or that food has been given to it. In contrast, the nominative, accusative, and dative cases in Icelandic would be expressed using three separate word forms, respectively: hundurinn, hundinn, and hundinum.

Along with many other differences, this grammatical divergence in the case system distinguishes Icelandic from its closely related sibling languages. According to the first author Olena Shcherbakova from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, "One well-known theory about why some languages show more complex grammar than others links grammatical complexity to the social environments in which these languages are used."

For instance, the more over 350,000 residents in the area mostly learn and utilize Icelandic. These comparatively small, remote towns are also known as "societies of intimates." The other Scandinavian nations, which are close to their neighbors, have greater populations and significant percentages of non-native speakers.

These groups are referred to as "societies of strangers." Many linguists assert that languages with a higher percentage of non-native speakers tend to simplify their grammars because, in contrast to children, adult learners find it difficult to absorb complicated grammatical structures necessary for mastering their new language's nuances.

But does the tremendous linguistic variety found in the globe extend to Iceland? The Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology conducted research to determine if language grammars tend to become more straightforward in bigger communities of strangers that contain a high percentage of non-native speakers.

They used information from Grambank, a recently released worldwide database of grammatical traits, to calculate the grammatical complexity of 1,314 languages for their study, which was published in Science Advances. These complexity ratings were contrasted with information on the proportion of non-native speakers of each language.

Complexity definition

There are several competing theories on language complexity, which is a widely discussed subject in linguistics. According to Hedvig Skirgrd of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, "many of the disagreements are due to differences in how 'complexity' is defined."

In this work, we refined the approach by isolating two independent measures: informativity (the number of distinctions made) and fusion (the number of affixes verbs and nouns contain).

The findings demonstrate that unfamiliar civilizations do not speak less complicated languages. As opposed to this, Shcherbakova claims that "our study shows that the variation in grammatical complexity generally accumulates too slowly to adapt to the immediate environment."

German is a well-known example of how social context does not influence grammatical complexity. German has preserved its case system and many other grammatical characteristics despite being studied and spoken by many non-native speakers.

The study examines how social context affects linguistic complexity while taking into consideration the anticipated parallels resulting from both contact and genealogical inheritance. Our work emphasizes the need of employing extensive data and taking into consideration the impact of heredity and interaction when resolving persistent concerns about the development of languages. It demonstrates how conventional language knowledge can be systematically examined using increasingly accessible global datasets," says University of Auckland's Simon Greenhill.