Have you ever wondered why some languages sound faster than others? Researchers at the Universite de Lyon may have stumbled on the answer. They analysed several different languages to determine how much information each one was able to stuff into a single syllable. Then, they had speakers of several different languages read the same texts out loud. Each text had been translated so that the participants were all reading in their native languages. Eight languages were studied: English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Mandarin, Spanish and Vietnamese.
After listening to the recordings, the researchers used them to figure out how many syllables were spoken per second for each language. According to a write-up of the study published in Time, that led to an “a-ha” moment of sorts:
“A trade-off is operating between a syllable-based average information density and the rate of transmission of syllables. A dense language will make use of fewer speech chunks than a sparser language for a given amount of semantic information.”
More simply put, the more information you can communicate with a single syllable, the fewer syllables you need to cram into each second and the “slower” a given language sounds.
But why are some languages more “information-dense” than others? Writing for The Economist, R.L.G has an educated guess:
“I have a guess as to why this would be. Languages that have simpler sound systems (fewer consonants and vowels, no tones, nasal vowels or other such tricks) tend to require longer words. This is because if you only have eight consonants and five vowels, as Hawaiian does, you’re going to get lots of homophones. So words have to be longer to remain distinct; this is the reason that the famous state fish is the humuhumunukunukuapua’a.”
That makes sense, though it doesn’t appear that the Universite de Lyon researchers went that far in their analysis. It would be interesting to see if there is actually is a correlation between the number of phonemes in a given language and that language’s “information density.”