The human brain's preference to communicate simply and effectively is why there are so many commonalities between languages, say researchers. The brain likes to process information as accurately and quickly as possible, and as a result, a language – as it is spoken and developed over the years – also uses the best possible route to convey ideas.
A new research paper published by a team from the University of Arizona suggests that the similarities in structure that languages share did not happen by chance. The study, reports Medical Xpress, has been published in the journal Psychological Science.
This study has been the first time that data has backed up what was considered to be a casual link between brain processing and language that is efficient, according to the researchers.
"If we look at languages of the world, they are very different on the surface, but they also share a lot of underlying commonalities, often called linguistic universals or cross-linguistic generalisations," says Masha Fedzechkina, lead author of the study.
Her team set out to find why that is the case and carried out a language-learning experiment to try and understand how it works and if these commonalities are actually real. "Most theories assume the reasons why languages have these cross-linguistic universals is because they're in some way constrained by the human brain," Fedzechkina explains.
"If these linguistic universals are indeed real, and if we understand their causes, then it can tell us something about how language is acquired or processed by the human brain, which is one of the central questions in language sciences," she adds.
The experiment conducted by researchers involved teaching two groups of participants, who only spoke English, two miniature languages created just for this study. The two languages were structured differently from each other, and reportedly also sounded nothing like English.
The structure of language refers to the way sentences are put together. Most sentences have subjects (S), verb (V) and object (O), and the way they are arranged is the structure. English and French, for example, are SVO languages, while German and Japanese are SOV languages, explains Sciencemag. Arabic and Hebrew – along with a few other languages – use VSO, but are limited in number.
Fedzechkina and her team taught the participants two ways to express a similar idea and then were asked to verbally describe what they saw in a video using their newly learnt language. All of them had an overwhelming preference, says the report, for using phrases and structures that had a short "dependency length".
Dependency length is the distance between words that depend on each other to explain their meaning. Dependency length is important for language to make sense to its users, and humans have designed languages that have short dependency lengths.
"The longer the dependencies are, the harder they are to process in comprehension, presumably because of memory constraints," Fedzechkina explains. "If we look cross-linguistically, we find that word orders of languages, overall, tend to have shorter dependencies than would be expected by chance, suggesting that there is a correlation between constraints on human information processing and the structures of natural languages.
"Processing constraints do play a role in language acquisition, language structure and the way language changes over time," she says.
Could this be why the English language has also evolved and continues to do so?
To make communication faster, regular users of the internet are able to exchange complex ideas and emotions through simple abbreviations and acronyms. Whole conversations are possible with words like ROFL, LOL, BRB, YOLO, ASAP and WTF. Even clusters of numbers and symbols also convey real meaning – for example, 404 or <3.
Some of these words have even been added to the Oxford English Dictionary and are seen as acceptable in everyday speech. This seems to be driven by the need to make language more efficient.