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Half of the global language diversity is endangered, according to a study on 2,400 languages.


There are over 7,000 languages ​​in the world and their grammar can vary greatly. Linguists are interested in these differences because of what they tell us about our history, our cognitive abilities, and what it means to be human.

But this great diversity is under threat because more and more languages ​​are not taught to children and fall asleep.

In a new paper published in Science Advances, we launched an extensive database of language grammars called Grambank. With this resource we can answer many research questions about language and see how much grammatical diversity we could lose if the crisis is not stopped.

Our findings are alarming: we are losing languages, we are losing linguistic diversity, and unless we act, these windows on our collective history will close.

What is Grammar?

The grammar of a language is the set of rules that determines what constitutes a sentence in that language and what constitutes gibberish. Tense, for example, is mandatory in English. To combine “Sarah,” “writing,” and “papers” into a well-formed sentence, I need to specify a time. If you don’t have time in an English sentence, then it’s not grammatical.

However, this is not the case in all languages. In the Hokkaido Ainu native language of Japan, speakers do not have to specify a time at all. They may add words such as “already” or “tomorrow” – but speakers consider the sentence correct without these words.

Like the great anthropologist Franz Boas once said:

grammar (…) determines those aspects of any experience that must be expressed.

Linguists are not interested in “correct” grammar. We know that grammar changes over time and from place to place – and that variation isn’t a bad thing for us, it’s amazing!

By studying these rules in different languages, we can gain insight into how our mind works and how we transfer meaning from ourselves to others. We can also learn about our history, where we come from and how we got here. It’s quite extraordinary.

Read more: Get to know the remote indigenous community where a few thousand people speak 15 different languages

A huge linguistic database of grammar

We are excited to release Grambank in the world. Our team of international colleagues has built it up over several years by reading many books on language rules and talking to experts and community members about specific languages.

It was a difficult task. Grammars of different languages ​​can be very different from each other. Moreover, different people have different ways of describing how these rules work. Linguists love jargon, so understanding them was sometimes a particular challenge.

We had to read a lot of books for the Grambank project.
Hedvig Skirgard

In Grambank, we used 195 questions to compare over 2,400 languages, including two sign languages. The map below gives an overview of what we have recorded.

Each dot represents a language, and the more similar the color, the more similar the languages. To create this map, we used a technique called principal component analysis. It reduced the 195 questions to three dimensions, which we then mapped in red, green and blue.

The wide variety of colors shows how different all these languages ​​are from each other. Where we get regions with similar colors, like in the Pacific, it could mean that the languages ​​are related, or that they borrowed a lot from each other.

Half of the global language diversity is endangered according to.0&rect=201,28,4419,2924&q=45&auto=format&w=754&fit=clip
World map of languages ​​included in the Grambank dataset. The color represents grammatical similarity – the more similar the colors, the more similar the grammars.
Skirgard et al. (2023), CC BY-SA

Language is very special to humans; it is part of what makes us who we are.

Unfortunately, the world’s indigenous languages ​​are facing a crisis of threat due to colonization and globalization. We know every language lost hits hard the health of Indigenous individuals and communities by breaking ties with origins and traditional knowledge.

Read more: People on Vanuatu’s Malekula Island speak more than 30 indigenous languages. This is why we need to include them

Nearly half of the world’s linguistic diversity is under threat

Besides the loss of individual languages, our team wanted to understand what we have to lose in terms of grammatical diversity.

The Grambank database reveals a dazzling variety of languages ​​around the world – a testament to the human capacity for change, variation and ingenuity.

Using an ecological measure of diversity, we assessed what kind of loss we can expect if languages ​​that are currently under threat were to disappear. We found that certain regions will be hit harder than others.

It is frightening that some regions of the world, such as South America and Australia, are expected to lose all of their indigenous language diversity, as all indigenous languages ​​there are under threat. Even other regions where languages ​​are relatively safe, such as the Pacific, Southeast Asia and Europe, are still showing a dramatic drop of around 25%.

Half of the global language diversity is endangered according to.0&q=45&auto=format&w=754&fit=clip
Barplot of grammatical diversity (functional richness) across regions. Light green shows current diversity, dark green shows remaining diversity after endangered languages ​​are removed.
Author provided

What’s next?

Without sustained support for language revitalization, many people will be harmed and our shared linguistic window on human history, cognition and culture will become severely fragmented.

The United Nations has declared 2022-2032 the Decade of Indigenous Languages. There are grassroots organizations all over the world, including the Ngukurr Language Centre, Noongar Boodjar Language Centreand the Canadian Heiltsuk Cultural Educational Center work on language preservation and revitalization. Watch this to get an idea of ​​what this can be like interactive animation by Angelina Joshua.

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