Language generally becomes simpler

Charles Darwin found inspiration for his theory of evolution in the beaks of birds, giant tortoises, and language. “The survival or retention of certain words in the struggle for existence is natural selection,” he wrote. The descent of man In 1871.

Language changes gradually over time. Much research examines how social and environmental factors influence language change, but few studies address the forces of human cognitive selection to enter particular words into the lexicon. This is exactly what a new large-scale study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of AmericaInvestigation.

In an experiment similar to a game of telephone, thousands of participants read and rewrote stories in English, which were then read and rewritten by other participants. Only certain words from the first stories were retained in the final versions. Researchers have analyzed which parts of speech speakers consistently prefer, and found that such preferences lead to language change. The scientists also separately analyzed two large collections of English historical texts from the past two centuries, containing more than 40 billion words. Here too, they saw that only certain parts of speech survived.

The results showed three properties that give words an “evolutionary advantage” by helping them stick in the brain. First, words learned at an early age (such as “hand,” “uncle,” or “today”) are more stable. Concrete words also stick better than abstract words: “dog” sticks longer than “animal,” which sticks longer than “organism.” Finally, emotionally arousing words – whether negative or positive – tend to stick around longer.

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Early models of language development assumed that language becomes increasingly complex over time. But Fritz Breithaupt, a cognitive scientist at Indiana University Bloomington and co-author of the study, says the new research supports a more recent theory that language eventually becomes more efficient and easier to understand. The study says that this does not mean that English is the language of children. “Yes, we are switching to simple language, but we are also maintaining the complex language we need,” Breithaupt explains. New words related to the complexities of modern life could go a long way in compensating for this shift.

The proposed trend towards a “simpler” language is controversial. Columbia University linguist John McWhorter more or less agrees with the study's findings about the evolutionary advantages of language. However, he questions the implications for the overall proficiency of English – a language he says contains things like “unnecessarily complex” grammatical residue. “There are about five ways to indicate the future in English,” he says. “I feel sorry for anyone who didn't grow up with it and want to learn it.”

The study's lead author, Ying Li, a psychologist at the Chinese Academy of Sciences whose native language is not English, points out that in the past, English had more confusing grammar rules. Lee posits that McWhorter “would complain more if he went back in time 800 years.”

Megan Vasquez

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