Linguistic correlates of societal variation: A quantitative analysis


Traditionally, many researchers have supported a uniformitarian view whereby all languages are of roughly equal complexity, facilitated by internal trade-offs between complexity at different levels, such as morphology and syntax. The extent to which the speakers’ societies influence the trade-offs has not been well studied. In this paper, we focus on morphology and syntax, and report significant correlations between specific linguistic and societal features, in particular those relating to exoteric (open) vs. esoteric (close-knit) society types, characterizable in terms of population size, mobility, communication across distances, etc. We conduct an exhaustive quantitative analysis drawing upon WALS, D-Place, Ethnologue and Glottolog, finding some support for our hypothesis that languages spoken by exoteric societies tend towards more complex syntaxes, while languages spoken by esoteric societies tend towards more complex morphologies.