U of R boffins find that language evolution is based largely on convenience

Why is Middle English so different from modern English? It turns out that language evolution is based on the most convenient and efficient way to convey meaning. RIT journo student Nadia Pierre-Louis explains.

Ever wonder why different languages seem to have similar roots and structures? Well you probably haven’t, seeing as most people only speak one language. But a study at University of Rochester has found some discoveries that still might interest you, in which they have established exactly how our brains process language.

A team from U of R and Georgetown University created an experiment in which they made two miniature artificial languages with all new verbs, nouns, and pronouns. In four 45-minute sessions, 40 undergraduate students learned the new language by focusing really hard on studying computer images, animated clips, and audio recordings.

They were then shown a clip and asked to describe it in their new language. When faced with problems in the word structure of this language, they chose to alter it in a way that made them understand it more. From this experiment, the team discovered how the human mind alters and changes language to mold it into what’s clearer and much simpler for them to understand.

These findings also support the idea that people learning new languages make common patterns, or what scholars call “linguistic universals.” Says T. Florian Jaeger, co-author of a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Our research shows that humans choose to reshape language when the structure is either overly redundant or confusing. This study suggests that we prefer languages that on average convey information efficiently, striking a balance between effort and clarity.

An article written by Brian Macwhinney supports the study conducted by University of Rochester. In it, Macwhinney talks about language being an instinct constantly changing based on human evolution.

So basically, the human mind can structure language in a way that makes it’s easier for them to process. This can be a reason why many of our human languages are similar. And it makes it easier for us to learn to communicate with each other.