Grammar changes faster than vocabulary

(Reading time: 2 - 3 minutes)

The ‘myth’ of language history: languages do not share a single history but different components evolve along different trajectories and at different rates. A large-scale study reveals that forces driving grammatical change are different from those driving lexical change. Grammar changes more rapidly and is especially influenced by contact with unrelated languages, while words are more resistant to change.


An international team of researchers, led by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, have discovered that a language’s grammatical structures change more quickly over time than vocabulary, overturning a long-held assumption in the field.


The study found that grammatical structures on average actually changed faster than vocabulary. “We found striking differences in the overall pattern of rates of change between the basic vocabulary and the grammatical features of a language,” explains Simon Greenhill of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, lead author of the study. “The grammatical structures changed much more quickly and seemed to be more likely to be affected by neighboring languages, while the lexicon changed more as new languages were formed.”


The researchers found that there were specific elements of both vocabulary and grammar that change at a slow rate, as well as elements that change more quickly. One interesting finding was that the slowly evolving grammatical structures tended to be those that speakers are less aware of. Why would this be? When two languages come together, or when one language splits into two, speakers of the languages emphasize or adopt certain elements in order to identify or distinguish themselves from others. We’re all familiar with how easily we can distinguish groups among speakers of our own language by accent or dialect, and we often make associations based on those distinctions. Humans in the past did this too and, the researchers hypothesize, this was one of the main drivers of language change. However, if a speaker is unaware of a certain grammatical structure because it is so subtle, they will not try to change it or use it as a marker of group identity. Thus those features of a language often remain stable. The researchers note that the precise features that remain more stable over time are specific to each language group.


The researchers suggest, that although grammar as a whole might not be a better tool for examining language change, a more nuanced approach that combined computational methods with large-scale databases of both grammar and lexicon could allow for a look into the deeper past. Russell Gray, senior author on the paper, says, “One of the really cool things we found was that this approach might allow us to detect when and where speakers of different languages were interacting many thousands of years ago.”


Source: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History

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