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Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2012 Jul 5;367(1597):1829-36. doi: 10.1098/rstb.2011.0216.

Social scale and structural complexity in human languages.

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  • 1Centre for Behaviour and Evolution and Institute of Neuroscience, Newcastle University, Henry Wellcome Building, Framlington Place, Newcastle NE2 4HH, UK. daniel.nettle@ncl.ac.uk

Abstract

The complexity of different components of the grammars of human languages can be quantified. For example, languages vary greatly in the size of their phonological inventories, and in the degree to which they make use of inflectional morphology. Recent studies have shown that there are relationships between these types of grammatical complexity and the number of speakers a language has. Languages spoken by large populations have been found to have larger phonological inventories, but simpler morphology, than languages spoken by small populations. The results require further investigation, and, most importantly, the mechanism whereby the social context of learning and use affects the grammatical evolution of a language needs elucidation.

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