Linguistic systems are hypothesised to be shaped by pressures towards communicative efficiency that drive processes of simplification. A longstanding illustration of this idea is the claim that Chinese characters have progressively simplified over time. Here we test this claim by analyzing a dataset with more than a million images of Chinese characters spanning more than 3,000 years of recorded history. We find no consistent evidence of simplification through time, and contrary to popular belief we find that modern Chinese characters are higher in visual complexity than their earliest known counterparts. One plausible explanation for our findings is that simplicity trades off with distinctiveness, and that characters have become less simple because of pressures towards distinctiveness. Our findings are therefore compatible with functional accounts of language but highlight the diverse and sometimes counterintuitive ways in which linguistic systems are shaped by pressures for communicative efficiency.

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Competing Interests: The authors declare no conflict of interest.

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