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Languages | From the blog of Nicholas C. Rossis, author of science fiction, the Pearseus epic fantasy series and children's books

The world has known many languages; some 7,000 are currently spoken. And we use language to inform others. So, are some languages better than others when it comes to how fast we convey information?

A group of intrepid linguists set out to find out.

How many bits per syllable?

Their thinking was simple: words are, basically, bits of information. Some languages have many syllables; some few. Some are spoken slowly; others fast. Does that make some languages more efficient than others? For example, linguistic differences between Japanese and English lead to a ratio of 1:11 in their number of distinct syllables.

Simply put, English speakers will use 11 times more syllables than Japanese ones to convey the same meaning. Wouldn’t it make sense that Japanese would be 11 times more efficient in conveying information?

Strangely enough, no. The researchers found that information is conveyed at an information rate (IR) of about 39 bits per second. So common is that rate that they theorize that this phenomenon is rooted in the human neurocognitive capacity: our brains can’t process verbal information any faster than that.

For those who are not tech-savvy, a bit is the smallest information that can be conveyed and can only have a value of 0 or 1. The very first modems, developed in 1959, had a transfer rate of 110 bits per second (bps); almost three times faster than language. A typical modem today can reach 100 Mbps–a whopping one hundred million bits.

Clearly, language is a sloooow way of transferring information…

The study

During the study, the researchers studied a sample of 17 languages from 9 language families spread across Europe and Asia. These showed a remarkable diversity in terms of linguistic and typological features at all levels, from phonetics and phonology to morphology and syntax and to semantics and pragmatics.

Focusing on their phonetics and phonology, these languages vary significantly:

  • In their number of phonemes: from 25 in Japanese and Spanish to more than 40 in English and Thai),
  • the number of distinct syllables: from a few hundred in Japanese to almost 7000 in English
  • tonal complexity: from none to six contrastive tones
  • and various other phonological phenomena: e.g., vowel harmony is present in Finnish, Hungarian, Korean, and Turkish

Thanks to its size and diversity, this sample was deemed adequate to extrapolate to human language in general.

Slow down!

The researchers also noticed that the number of syllables differed greatly between languages. For example, English has almost 7,000 syllables while Japanese only has 643; almost ten times fewer.

They then measured how much information each syllable can carry, depending on the language. Would each Japanese syllable carry ten times more information?

Strangely enough, the answer is no. The range was from five bits per syllable (Basque) to just eight (Vietnamese).

People make up for this by talking faster in languages with many syllables and slower in languages with few ones. While the Italians talk at a staggering nine syllables per second, Germans barely manage five. A language with great information density cannot be spoken fast and vice versa.

Their conclusion? No language is more efficient in transferring information than the rest. And the reason seems to be our brain’s limitation in absorbing information at a faster rate than a rather slow 40 bits per second…

Read more about this fascinating insight into the inner working of the human brain on ScienceMag.org. Or continue reading about the most common words used in multiple languages.