39.15 bits per second

Some languages—such as Japanese, Basque, and Italian—are spoken more quickly than others. Articulation and speech rates are much faster in Spanish than in English (as you can watch in the video below). Italians are able to chatter at up to nine syllables per second. Germans, on the other hand, are slower enunciators, delivering five to six syllables in the same period of time. Yet in any given interval, both Italians and Germans convey roughly the same amount of information. This is the result of a study published in Science Advances last September.

Researchers calculated the information density of 17 different languages, including English, Italian, Japanese, and Vietnamese. They found that each language has a different information density in terms of bits per syllable. Japanese, for example, with only 643 syllables, has an information density of about 5 bits per syllable, whereas English, with 6949 different syllables, had a density of just over 7 bits per syllable.

What’s striking is that, no matter how fast or slow, simple or complex, all languages gravitate toward an average rate of 39.15 bits per second. That’s a bit faster than the speed of Morse code (depending on the telegrapher’s skills). That means some languages are more efficient than others encoding information. In other words, people speaks faster less efficient languages.

Language is universal, but it has few indisputably universal characteristics, with cross-linguistic variation being the norm. For example, languages differ greatly in the number of syllables they allow, resulting in large variation in the Shannon information per syllable. Nevertheless, all natural languages allow their speakers to efficiently encode and transmit information. We show here, using quantitative methods on a large cross-linguistic corpus of 17 languages, that the coupling between language-level (information per syllable) and speaker-level (speech rate) properties results in languages encoding similar information rates (~39 bits/s) despite wide differences in each property individually: Languages are more similar in information rates than in Shannon information or speech rate. These findings highlight the intimate feedback loops between languages’ structural properties and their speakers’ neurocognition and biology under communicative pressures. Thus, language is the product of a multiscale communicative niche construction process at the intersection of biology, environment, and culture.

Coupé, C., Oh, Y.M., Dediu, D., and Pellegrino, F. (2019). Different languages, similar encoding efficiency: Comparable information rates across the human communicative niche. Science Advances 5, eaaw2594.

The idea seems quite attractive for a good video illustrating this universal constant, yet I had not found a good example until a couple of weeks ago. Here is a lovely video with a good performance by Sam Gratton and his partner and business partner Marina ;). Enjoy it:

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Featured Image: aesthetics of crisis, Speak Louder

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