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English and Mandarin each have more than 1 billion speakers in the world, and have huge vocabularies with relatively uncomplicated grammar. Hungarian has about 13 million native speakers, but is considered one of the most difficult tongues to master, for a series of devilishly tricky grammar and pronunciation distinctions, including dozens of different cases.

A new computer simulation shows a pattern produced by interconnected modern-day Babel of the 21st century: as culture spreads, it is increasingly simplified, with easy innovations replacing more complex ideas.

The wider a language spreads, the more words it has – but it acquires simpler and simpler grammar, reports the Cornell University team in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society: Biological Sciences.

“Linguistic innovations that are easy to learn tend to increase in number as a linguistic community grows, because the number of potential innovators increases, and innovations can spread more rapidly,” they write. “By contrast, small linguistic communities favor linguistic innovations that are hard to learn because they require multiple interactions between individual speakers.”

To test the changes at a population level, they looked at computer models through a new innovate-and-propagate, or IAP, process based on the “Chinese restaurant process.” That methodology essentially shows probabilistic statistics assuming a “rich get richer” conception of likelihood.

Runs of the model showed population sizes at 30, 50, 100, 200 and 500 “agents.” At bigger populations, speakers are less likely to speak with significant numbers of the other parts of the linguistic population. Thus, the innovations that are passed on must be more universally understood – and thus, simpler, they found.

The same concept goes for other cultural phenomena, they write. They point to aspects of pop culture like music and dance, myths and religious beliefs, which have fewer complex varieties in the modern world.

“Our simulations raise the possibility that language and culture might become unrelentingly simpler, as the structural level, as human societies become increasingly interconnected,” write the authors, who also represent the University of Warwick and the Undersidad de los Andres in Colombia.

But they also cite smaller groups being able to form their own cultural ideas and traditions in closer networks, separate from the population at large. Examples they cite include the development of sophisticated bebop in the small jazz circles of the 1940s in Manhattan, and the lindy hop dance craze created at a single venue in a single era: the Savoy Ballroom in 1930s Harlem.

“People can self-organize into smaller communities to counteract that drive toward simplification,” said Morten Christiansen, one of the authors, a Cornell psychologist and co-director of the Cognitive Science Program.

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