August 14, 2015

Grammar: eventually the brain opts for the easy route

If the first noun in a sentence without a clear case marker («Bertram») does not refer
to the agent, the brain activity is stronger (see blue curve). (Image: UZH)

(August 14, 2015)  Languages are constantly evolving – and grammar is no exception. The way in which the brain processes language triggers adjustments. If the brain has to exert itself too much to cope with difficult case constructions, it usually simplifies them over time, as linguists from the University of Zurich demonstrate in a study on languages all over the world.

The grammar of languages keeps reorganizing itself. A prime example of this is the omission of case endings in the transition from Latin to Italian. And in some instances, case systems are remodeled entirely – such as in the transition from Sanskrit to Hindi, which has completely new grammatical cases. 

Simplifications found in all languages

An international team of researchers headed by linguist Balthasar Bickel from the University of Zurich conducted statistical analyses of the case systems in more than 600 languages and recorded the changes over time. They then tested these adaptations experimentally in test subjects, measuring the brain flows that become active during language comprehension. The scientists were therefore able to demonstrate that the brain activity is stronger for complex case constructions than for simple ones.

journal reference (Open Access)  >>