Social biases can lead to less communicatively efficient languages

Masha Fedzechkina, Lucy Hall Hartley, Gareth Roberts

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Language is subject to a variety of pressures. Recent work has documented that many aspects of language structure have properties that appear to be shaped by biases for the efficient communication of semantic meaning. Other work has investigated the role of social pressures, whereby linguistic variants can acquire positive or negative evaluation based on who is perceived to be using them. While the influence of these two sets of biases on language change has been well documented, they have typically been treated separately, in distinct lines of research. We used a miniature language paradigm to test how these biases interact in language change. Specifically, we asked whether pressures to mark social meaning can lead linguistic systems to become less efficient at communicating semantic meaning. We exposed participants to a miniature language with uninformative constituent order and two dialects, one that employed case and one that did not. In the instructions, we socially biased participants toward users of the case dialect, users of the no-case dialect, or neither. Learners biased toward the no-case dialect dropped informative case, thus creating a linguistic system with high message uncertainty. They failed to compensate for this increased message uncertainty even after additional exposure to the novel language. Case was retained in all other conditions. These findings suggest that social biases not only interact with biases for efficient communication in language change but also can lead to linguistic systems that are less efficient at communicating semantic meaning.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)230-255
Number of pages26
JournalLanguage Acquisition
Issue number3-4
StatePublished - 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Education
  • Linguistics and Language


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