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Developing K–5 Literacy

HomenewsIndigenousLoss of Language Diversity Accelerating

Loss of Language Diversity Accelerating


There’s an ongoing crisis in the field of linguistics: Global language experts estimate that, without intervention, about one language will be lost every month for the next 40 years. 


In a new study, an international team of researchers reports that grammatical structure is highly flexible across languages, shaped by common ancestry, constraints on cognition and usage, and language contact. The study used the Grambank database, which contains data on grammatical structures in over 2400 languages. Grammar is simply the rules of a language: the words and sounds used and how they are combined and interpreted. Grammatical elements of a language include word order (if the subject goes before or after the verb), tense (present, past or future), comparatives (words that express “bigger” or “smaller”) and whether a language has gendered pronouns. 


Grambank’s coverage spans 215 different language families and 101 isolates from all inhabited continents. “The design of the feature questionnaire initially required numerous revisions in order to encompass many of the diverse solutions that languages have evolved to code grammatical properties”, says Hedvig Skirgård, who coordinated much of the coding and is the lead author of the study.


The team settled on 195 grammatical properties, ranging from word order to whether or not a language has gendered pronouns. For instance, many languages have separate pronouns for ‘he’ and ‘she’, but some also have male and female versions of ‘I’ or ‘you’. The possible ‘design space’ would be enormous if grammatical properties were to vary freely. Limits on variation could be related to cognitive principles rooted in memory or learning, rendering some grammatical structures more likely than others. Limits could also be related to historical ‘accidents’, such as descent from a common language or contact with other languages.


The researchers discovered much greater flexibility in the combination of grammatical features than many theorists have assumed. “Languages are free to vary considerably in quantifiable ways, but not without limits”, explains Stephen Levinson, director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and one of the founders of the Grambank project. “A sign of the extraordinary diversity of the 2400 languages in our sample is that only five of them occupy the same location in design space (share the same grammatical properties).”

‘Unusual’ languages 

Using Grambank, the team found they could identify “unusual” languages: those that stray further from the averages in variation typically found in language, which often have no known sister languages. But they also found there’s nothing particularly unusual about endangered languages compared with those that are not endangered.

“A lot of fairly ordinary languages, in terms of their basic grammar, happen to be endangered for a variety of reasons,” says Haynie. English, spoken around the world by 1.5 billion people, is actually “a pretty weird language” by Grambank’s standards. “Some of the places with more ‘unusual’ languages are places like Europe and Northern Africa—languages that we, as English speakers, tend to be more familiar with,” said Haynie. 

The bigger takeaway for Haynie is that none of the languages in the data set are identical. Of all 2,400 languages and dialects in the data set, only five match up the same using the grammatical code used to document and analyze them within Grambank. Though vocabulary may play a big role in the mutual unintelligibility that linguists rely on to determine what counts as separate languages, Grambank shows that the grammatical “fingerprints” of languages are also typically unique, she said.  “It means that every language is pretty darn special,” said Haynie. 

Language loss

Language extinction has occurred throughout human history, but its speed has been accelerating due to social, political and economic pressures, says Haynie.

“The extraordinary diversity of languages is one of humanity’s greatest cultural endowments”, concludes Levinson. “This endowment is under threat, especially in some areas such as Northern Australia, and parts of South and Northern America. Without sustained efforts to document and revitalize endangered languages, our linguistic window into human history, cognition and culture will be seriously fragmented.” It’s as if, while mapping the human genome, scientists saw the genes themselves rapidly disappearing before their eyes. “Right now we’re at a critical state in terms of language endangerment,” added Haynie, noting the United Nations has declared this the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to try to promote language preservation, documentation and revitalization.

Genealogy versus geography

One element that has been “hotly debated” within linguistics for years is the relationship between genealogy and geography in the development of language. That is: Which features in language are inherited from family and culture (genealogy) and which are more likely to be shared through contact among neighbors (geography)? 

The Grambank analysis found genealogy seems to be consistently more important than geography—meaning the faithful inheritance of ancestral language plays a stronger role in shaping grammar in languages still spoken today than who someone’s geographical neighbors were and how they talked, says Haynie. 

While language crossover and bilingualism are well documented throughout history, this finding showcases how there is much we can still learn about human history and the ways we communicate in present day from the words of our ancestors. 
“It [Grambank] puts linguistics on an even footing with genetics, archaeology, and anthropology in terms of quantitative, large scale, accessible data”, says Gray. “I hope it will facilitate the exploration of links between linguistic diversity and a broad array of other cultural and biological traits, ranging from religious beliefs to economic behavior, musical traditions and genetic lineages. These links with other facets of human behavior will make Grambank a key resource not only in linguistics, but in the multidisciplinary endeavor of understanding human diversity.”
One element that has been “hotly debated” within linguistics for years is the relationship between genealogy and geography in the development of language. That is: Which features in language are inherited from family and culture (genealogy) and which are more likely to be shared through contact among neighbors (geography)? 

The Grambank analysis found genealogy seems to be consistently more important than geography—meaning the faithful inheritance of ancestral language plays a stronger role in shaping grammar in languages still spoken today than who someone’s geographical neighbors were and how they talked, says Haynie. 

While language crossover and bilingualism are well documented throughout history, this finding showcases how there is much we can still learn about human history and the ways we communicate in present day from the words of our ancestors. 
“It [Grambank] puts linguistics on an even footing with genetics, archaeology, and anthropology in terms of quantitative, large scale, accessible data”, says Gray. “I hope it will facilitate the exploration of links between linguistic diversity and a broad array of other cultural and biological traits, ranging from religious beliefs to economic behavior, musical traditions and genetic lineages. These links with other facets of human behavior will make Grambank a key resource not only in linguistics, but in the multidisciplinary endeavor of understanding human diversity.”

The Grambank database is an open-access comprehensive resource maintained by the Max Planck Society.  

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