Simpler grammar, larger vocabulary: How population size affects language

Languages with many speakers tend to be structurally simple while small communities sometimes develop languages with great structural complexity. Paradoxically, the opposite pattern appears to be observed for non-structural properties of language such as vocabulary size. These apparently opposite patterns pose a challenge for theories of language change and evolution. We use computational simulations to show that this inverse pattern can depend on a single factor: ease of diffusion through the population. A population of interacting agents was arranged on a network, passing linguistic conventions to one another along network links. Agents can invent new conventions, or replicate conventions that they have previously generated themselves or learned from other agents. Linguistic conventions are either Easy or Hard to diffuse, depending on how many times an agent needs to encounter a convention to learn it. In large groups, only linguistic conventions that are easy to learn, such as words, tend to proliferate, whereas small groups where everyone talks to everyone else allow for more complex conventions, like grammatical regularities, to be maintained. Our simulations thus suggest that language, and possibly other aspects of culture, may become simpler at the structural level as our world becomes increasingly interconnected.


Reali, F., Chater, N. & Christiansen, M.H. (2018). Simpler grammar, larger vocabulary: How population size affects language. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 285, 20172586.