Population size potentially affecting rates of language change

Open access Population Size and the Rate of Language Evolution: A Test Across Indo-European, Austronesian, and Bantu Languages, by Greenhill et al. Front. Psychol (2018) 9:576.

Summary (emphasis mine):

What role does speaker population size play in shaping rates of language evolution? There has been little consensus on the expected relationship between rates and patterns of language change and speaker population size, with some predicting faster rates of change in smaller populations, and others expecting greater change in larger populations. The growth of comparative databases has allowed population size effects to be investigated across a wide range of language groups, with mixed results. One recent study of a group of Polynesian languages revealed greater rates of word gain in larger populations and greater rates of word loss in smaller populations. However, that test was restricted to 20 closely related languages from small Oceanic islands. Here, we test if this pattern is a general feature of language evolution across a larger and more diverse sample of languages from both continental and island populations. We analyzed comparative language data for 153 pairs of closely-related sister languages from three of the world’s largest language families: Austronesian, Indo-European, and Niger-Congo. We find some evidence that rates of word loss are significantly greater in smaller languages for the Indo-European comparisons, but we find no significant patterns in the other two language families. These results suggest either that the influence of population size on rates and patterns of language evolution is not universal, or that it is sufficiently weak that it may be overwhelmed by other influences in some cases. Further investigation, for a greater number of language comparisons and a wider range of language features, may determine which of these explanations holds true.

Interesting excerpts:

Our analysis suggests that, as for Polynesian languages, smaller Indo-European languages have greater rates of word loss from basic vocabulary. This result is consistent with the claim that smaller populations are at greater risk of loss of language elements, and other aspects of culture, due to effects of incomplete sampling of variants over generations. However, we note that the relatively small sample size for this dataset complicates the interpretation of this result. Least squares regression after Welch & Waxman test has the same false positive rate but has much less power than Poisson regression when sample size is small (~ten or fewer pairs, Hua et al., 2015). This makes it difficult to interpret the inconsistent results of these two analyses, as they may be due to their difference in the statistical power. Hence, the negative relationship between rates of loss and population size for Indo-European languages would benefit from additional investigation. We do not find evidence for a negative relationship between population size and word loss rates in the Austronesian and Bantu groups. This finding suggests that either these datasets contain too few language variants to have sufficient power to detect rate differences, or that the increased loss rate in small populations is not a universal phenomenon, or that it is a relatively weak force in some language groups and thus may be overwhelmed by other social, linguistic or demographic factors.

Regarding potential drawbacks of the study:

[M]easuring speech community size is notoriously difficult. How exactly does one delimit a speech community (Crystal, 2008) and what degree of proficiency in a language is sufficient to be part of the community (Bloomfield, 1933)? This task is made harder as there are few national censuses that collect detailed speaker statistics. Further, speaker population size can change rapidly with many modern world languages (especially the Indo-European languages) experiencing rapid growth over the last few hundred years (Crystal, 2008), while others have experienced catastrophic declines (Bowern, 2010). For the same reasons, the difficulty of obtaining accurate population estimates is also a problem in biology. Furthermore, the relevant parameter for genetic change—the effective population size—is difficult to estimate directly, even when accurate census information is available (Wang et al., 2016). Likewise, there may be an important role played by population and network density—tight-knit networks may inhibit change, while loosely integrated speech communities (regardless of their size), may facilitate change (Granovetter, 1973; Milroy and Milroy, 1992). One way forward here is perhaps to simulate rates of change over a range of population sizes and network topologies (c.f. Reali et al., 2018).

As conclusions:

Firstly, we provide some evidence that rates of language change can be affected by demographic factors. Even if the effect is not universal, the finding of significant associations between population size and patterns of linguistic change in some languages urges caution for any analysis of language evolution that makes an assumption of uniform rates of change. These results also potentially provide a window on processes of language change in these lineages, providing further impetus to investigate the effect of number of speakers on patterns of language transmission and loss. A more detailed study of language change for a larger number of comparisons might clarify the relationship between population size and word loss rates, particularly within the Indo-European language family.

Secondly, we have shown that the significant patterns of language change identified in a previous study are not a universal phenomenon. Unlike the study of Polynesian languages, we did not find any significant relationships between word gain rate and population size, and the association between loss rates and population size was not evident for all language families analyzed. The lack of universal relationships suggests that it may be difficult to draw general conclusions about the influence of demographic factors on patterns and rates of language change. Many other factors have been proposed to influence rates of language change (Greenhill, 2014) including population density, social structure (Nettle, 1999; Labov, 2007; Ke et al., 2008; Trudgill, 2011), degree of contact, and connectedness with other languages (Matras, 2009; Bowern, 2010), degree of language diffusion within a speech community (Wichmann et al., 2008), degree of bilingualism or multilingualism (Lupyan and Dale, 2010; Bentz and Winter, 2013), language group diversity (Atkinson et al., 2008) and environmental factors such as habitat heterogeneity and latitude (Bowern, 2010; Blust, 2013; Amano et al., 2014). These factors might mediate or overwhelm the effect of speaker population size.

We find no evidence to support the hypothesis that uptake of new words should be faster in small populations, which is based on the assumption that new words can diffuse more efficiently through a smaller speaker population than a larger one (Nettle, 1999). Nor do we find support for the suggestion that large, widespread languages have a tendency to lose linguistic features a greater rate (Lupyan and Dale, 2010). However, this latter hypothesis is predominantly expected to explain loss of complex linguistic morphology (such as case systems), which may be harder for non-native speakers to learn, rather than basic vocabulary studied here which may be comparatively easier for second language learners to acquire (but see Kempe and Brooks, 2018). Further, our results cannot be interpreted as confirmation of previous studies that suggest there is no effect of population size on rates (Wichmann and Holman, 2009). The detection of significant patterns in rates of lexical change with population size variation in the Polynesian and Indo-European languages, but the failure to identify similar patterns in the Bantu and Austronesian data, suggests that patterns of rates may need to be investigated on a case-by-case basis.

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