A linguistic tidbit from the ‘Obvious in Retrospect’ file:
A recent study of the speech information rate of seven languages concludes that there is considerable variation in the speed at which languages are spoken, but much less variation in how efficiently languages communicate the same information.
Dr. Pellegrino outlined the major findings of the team’s research: “Languages do need more or less time to tell the same story – for instance in our study, the texts spoken in English are much shorter than their Japanese counterparts. Despite those variations, there is a tendency to regulate the information rate, as shown by a strong negative correlation between the syllabic rate and the information density.” In other words, languages that are spoken faster (i.e., that have a higher syllabic rate) tend to pack less information into each individual syllable (i.e. have a lower information density).
In other other words, the more information packed into each syllable, the slower those syllables have to be delivered. Across languages, those two factors balance each other.
It makes sense because human brains have a cognitive limit, and they’ll only put up with so much throughput. Still, nice to see this result in black and white.