Everyone who had to read old texts knows that our language is much different than that of the past. And this past does not have to be extremely old – even texts from the beginning of the last age would look odd to the reader of today. However, we do not know how it happens, since we learn to speak from our parents and rules of grammar do not change that often. Now scientists from the University of Zurich found an explanation and demonstrated how languages from around the world evolve over time.
It turns out grammar tends to become more simple as it evolves. It is because of the way the brain processes language. Adjustments to grammar are made when the brain has to exert itself too much to cope with difficult case constructions and they get simplified over time. In other words, the grammar of languages keeps reorganizing itself according to how difficult it is for brains to cope with its constructions.
Scientists give some examples of such simplifications – in the transition from Latin to Italian case endings were omitted. In some other cases, for example, in the transition from Sanskrit to Hindi, case systems are remodelled entirely and new language has completely new grammatical cases. In order to make such insights, scientists had to conduct extensive research.
Team included many scientists from different countries. Researchers conducted statistical analyses of the case systems in more than 600 languages and recorded the changes over time. Then scientists tested the adaptations they found experimentally in test subjects, measuring the brain flows that become active during language comprehension. This showed that brain is more active while trying to comprehend more complex case constructions.
Linguist Balthasar Bickel, leader of the research team, explained that “certain case constructions tax the brain more, which is why they are eventually omitted from languages all over the world – independently of the structural properties of the languages or socio-historical factors”. This means that languages are shaped by biological factors – the harder it is to use, the more likely we are to simplify it.
Scientists say that this research was conducted in order to pave a way for future studies of languages, to better the understanding of their origins and evolution. It will also help to understand speech disorders better, since roots for them always lay in the brain. It is very important to understand how brain activity and language comprehension are linked and we can only wonder if our great-grandchildren will be able to understand our texts without difficulty.