Why do polysynthetic languages all have very few speakers?

Polysynthetic languages are able to express complex ideas in one word, that in most languages would require a whole sentence. For example, in Inuktitut:

qangatasuukkuvimmuuriaqalaaqtunga

“I’ll have to go to the airport”

There’s no widely accepted definition of a polysynthetic language. Generally, polysynthetic languages have noun incorporation (where noun arguments are expressed affixes of a verb) and serial verb construction (where a single word contains multiple verbs). They are considered some of the most grammatically complex languages in the world.

Polysynthetic languages are most commonly found among the indigenous languages of North America. Only a few such languages have more than 100k speakers: Nahuatl (1.5m speakers), Navajo (170k speakers), and Cree (110k speakers). Most polysynthetic languages are spoken by a very small number of people and many are in danger of becoming extinct.

Why aren’t there more polysynthetic languages — major national languages with millions of speakers? Is it mere coincidence that the most complex languages have few speakers? According to Wray (2007), it’s not just coincidence, rather, languages spoken within a small, close-knit community with little outside contact tend to develop grammatical complexity. Languages with lots of external contact and adult learners tend to be more simplified and regular.

It’s well known that children are better language learners than adults. L1 and L2 language acquisition processes work very differently, so that children and adults have different needs when learning a language. Adult learners prefer regularity and expressions that can be decomposed into smaller parts. Anyone who has studied a foreign language has seen tables of verb conjugations like these:

french-conjugation

korean-verb

For adult learners, the ideal language is predictable and has few exceptions. The number 12 is pronounced “ten-two“, not “twelve“. A doctor who treats your teeth is a “tooth-doctor“, rather than a “dentist“. Exceptions give the adult learner difficulties since they have to be individually memorized. An example of a very predictable language is the constructed language Esperanto, designed to have as few exceptions as possible and be easy to learn for native speakers of any European language.

Children learn languages differently. At the age of 12 months (the holophrastic stage), children start producing single words that can represent complex ideas. Even though they are multiple words in the adult language, the child initially treats them as a single unit:

whasat (what’s that)

gimme (give me)

Once they reach 18-24 months of age, children pick up morphology and start using multiple words at a time. Children learn whole phrases first, then only later learn to analyze them into parts on an as-needed basis, thus they have no difficulty with opaque idioms and irregular forms. They don’t really benefit from regularity either: when children learn Esperanto as a native language, they introduce irregularities, even when the language is perfectly regular.

We see evidence of this process in English. Native speakers frequently make mistakes like using “could of” instead of “could’ve“, or using “your” instead of “you’re“. This is evidence that native English speakers think of them as a single unit, and don’t naturally analyze them into their sub-components: “could+have” and “you+are“.

According to the theory, in languages spoken in isolated communities, where few adults try to learn the language, it ends up with complex and irregular words. When lots of grown-ups try to learn the language, they struggle with the grammatical complexity and simplify it. Over time, these simplifications eventually become a standard part of the language.

Among the world’s languages, various studies have found correlations between grammatical complexity and smaller population size, supporting this theory. However, the theory is not without its problems. As with any observational study, correlation doesn’t imply causation. The European conquest of the Americas decimated the native population, and consequently, speakers of indigenous languages have declined drastically in the last few centuries. Framing it this way, the answer to “why aren’t there more polysynthetic languages with millions of speakers” is simply: “they all died of smallpox or got culturally assimilated”.

If instead, Native Americans had sailed across the ocean and colonized Europe, would more of us be speaking polysynthetic languages now? Until we can go back in time and rewrite history, we’ll never know the answer for sure.

Further reading

  • Atkinson, Mark David. “Sociocultural determination of linguistic complexity.” (2016). PhD Thesis. Chapter 1 provides a good overview of how languages are affected by social structure.
  • Kelly, Barbara, et al. “The acquisition of polysynthetic languages.” Language and Linguistics Compass 8.2 (2014): 51-64.
  • Trudgill, Peter. Sociolinguistic typology: Social determinants of linguistic complexity. Oxford University Press, 2011.
  • Wray, Alison, and George W. Grace. “The consequences of talking to strangers: Evolutionary corollaries of socio-cultural influences on linguistic form.” Lingua 117.3 (2007): 543-578. This paper proposes the theory and explains it in detail.

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