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When it comes to language, size matters

Evolution

Date: 3 February 2015

New research has found languages with many speakers gain new words faster than languages with fewer speakers.
 
The research, led by the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language based at The Australian National University (ANU), shows for the first time how languages change among different populations.

“What we found is that languages with bigger populations of speakers are much more open to innovation,” said Dr Simon Greenhill, from the Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language.

“Previous research in language evolution failed to confirm exactly how population size affected the rate of language change,” Dr Greenhill said.

The findings come from a study of around 20 Polynesian island languages, where researchers could accurately estimate when the islands were first occupied and changes in population sizes.

Professor Lindell Bromham, an evolutionary biologist at the ANU Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology, said smaller languages lose words at a faster rate than their larger neighbours.

“Significantly, this question couldn’t have been answered without collaboration between biologists, linguists and computer scientists,” Professor Bromham said.
 
While this study focussed on Polynesian languages, there is interest in expanding the research to examine languages with many more speakers.

As the number of speakers for languages like English grows beyond 335 million, the research will help answer questions about the speed of language change.

“The results suggest that population density encourages innovation, and those innovations spread through the community — in other words having more speakers generates a churn effect, speeding up the rate of language change,” Dr Greenhill said.
 
The findings also confirm that human cultural characteristics like language can evolve and diversify in the same way as living organisms.
 
The study was a collaboration between evolutionary biologists at the Centre for Macroevolution and Macroecology, and linguists at the ARC Centre of Excellence for the Dynamics of Language at the Australian National University.
 
The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University

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