The differences between the 6,800 or so languages that currently exist in the world are remarkable. From Cantonese, in which a speaker must perfect six different tones each of which change the meaning of a single word, to Georgian, in which verb endings vary not just according to the tense or plurality (as in English), but in up to 200 other ways. Grammatical and morphological systems vary hugely. What is the source of this linguistic diversity? And why might some languages be so much harder to learn than others?
Many researchers have dedicated their time to answering these questions. In particular, extensive research has been carried out into the effect of the physical environment on the development of language. As one theory has it, languages typically spoken in very dry and cold climates (Siberia, for example) tend not to involve tonal distinctions between words (as is the case in Cantonese) – the simple reason being that it is harder to precisely control the vocal cords in dry environments.
Now research is being carried out into the role of social environments on language development. Limor Raviv, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen is working on this topic. In a recent study, she sought to answer one social question in particular – does the size of a community affect the development of a new language?
To find out the answer, Raviv designed an experiment in which two groups – one with four participants and one with eight – were set the task of creating a new language to describe the same set of 23 simple scenes. Within each group a ‘speaker’ would see one of four shapes moving in some direction on a screen and type in nonsense words to describe the scene (both its shape and direction). The ‘listener’ would then guess which scene the other person was referring to, by selecting one of eight scenes on their own screen. Participants received points for every successful interaction.
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