For the study, the researchers used an artificial language in a carefully controlled laboratory experiment.
"Our research shows that humans choose to reshape language when the structure is either overly redundant or confusing," said T. Florian Jaeger, the Wilmot Assistant Professor of the Sciences at Rochester and co-author of a study.
"This study suggests that we prefer languages that on average convey information efficiently, striking a balance between effort and clarity," Jaeger asserted.
The brain's tendency toward efficient communication may also be an underlying reason that many human languages are structurally similar, according to lead author Maryia Fedzechkina, a doctoral candidate at Rochester.
Over and over, linguists have identified nearly identical grammatical conventions in seemingly unrelated languages scattered throughout the globe. For decades, linguists have debated the meaning of such similarities: are recurrent structures artifacts of distant common origins, are they simply random accidents, or do they reflect fundamental aspects of human cognition?
This study supports the latter, said co-author Elissa L. Newport, professor of neurology and director of the Center for Brain Plasticity and Recovery at Georgetown, and the former George Eastman Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at Rochester.
"The bias language learners have toward efficiency and clarity acts as a filter as languages are transmitted from one generation of learners to another," she noted.
Alterations to language are introduced through many avenues, including the influence of other languages and changes in accents or pronunciation. "But this research finds that learners shift the language in ways that make it better - easier to use and more suitable for communication," said Newport.
That process also leads to the recurrent patterns across languages, the researchers said.
The finding was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.