16 June 2023

Global Language Loss

Global language experts estimate that, without intervention, about one language will be lost every month for the next 40 years.

Welcome back. My 2012 blog post on linguistics may have only been a concern to me--that “mom” is replacing “mother” and “no problem” is replacing “you’re welcome” (see Linguistic Longings)--but today’s topic, the loss of languages, has been described as a linguistic crisis. Reflecting its importance, the recently published study, led by researchers with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, has more than 100 contributors affiliated with institutions from around the world.

A key reason for the wide-ranging involvement is that most if not all of the contributors were involved in the development of the Grambank database, which the study introduces and relied on to answer long-standing questions about global linguistic diversity--in essence, the differences among different languages and the ways people communicate with one another.

Countries with most languages spoken in 2021 (from www.statista.com/chart/3862/countries-with-the-most-spoken-languages/).
One of those questions is what the consequences of language loss will be on our understanding of linguistic diversity.

Grambank Database
Grammar defines the rules of a language--words, sounds, how they are combined and interpreted. A language’s grammatical elements include word order, tense, comparatives (words that express ‘bigger’ or ‘smaller’) and whether the language has gendered pronouns.

There are about 7,000 spoken languages in the modern world and published grammatical descriptions for about 4,300 languages.

Grambank is the world’s largest publicly available comparative grammatical database. With more than 2,400 languages and 400,000 data points, it has encoded over half of all possible grammar information that can be extracted from existing data sources.

Language Loss
The loss of languages has occurred throughout human history. What’s new is that, due to social, political and economic pressures, the speed of loss has accelerated. The study’s co-first author from the University of Colorado at Boulder described it as if, while mapping the human genome, scientists saw the genes themselves rapidly disappearing before their eyes.

This global language loss is not evenly distributed. Among the regions at higher risk of losing indigenous languages are Aleut in Alaska, Salish languages of the Pacific Northwest, Yagua and Tariana in South America, and languages of Kuuk-Thaayorre and Wardaman in Northern Australia.

Characterizing the Loss
The comprehensiveness of Grambank allowed effective investigation of the potential loss of linguistic knowledge using a metric borrowed from the field of ecology, “functional richness.” This metric quantifies the area occupied by a species (languages in the study) by the set of features and estimates the diversity the data represent.

Computing this metric, first with all languages, and then only with languages that are not endangered, the researchers were able estimate the potential loss in structural diversity. They found that, although functional richness declines only moderately on a global scale with the loss of languages that are now under threat, the consequences of language loss vary significantly across regions.

Wrap Up
The researchers conclude that the pronounced reduction of the functional space occupied by languages, even in regions with many non-threatened languages, will undermine the ability to investigate the basic structures of language and the diverse expressions used to encode them.

Without sustained efforts to document and revitalize endangered languages, the linguistic window into human history, cognition and culture will be seriously fragmented.

Recognizing the state of language endangerment, the United Nations has declared this the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to promote language preservation, documentation and revitalization.

Thanks for stopping by.

Study of Grambank analyses of linguistic diversity in Science Advances journal: www.science.org/doi/10.1126/sciadv.adg6175
Article on study on EurekAlert! website: www.eurekalert.org/news-releases/986975
UN International Decade of Indigenous Languages 2022-2032: www.un.org/development/desa/indigenouspeoples/indigenous-languages.html

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