New research accompanying the launch of a grammar database, has revealed a potential loss of significant, global linguistic diversity.
Postdoctoral researcher Hedvig Skirgård and Associate Professor Simon Greenhil from the Australian National University and the University of Auckland respectively, have launched ‘Grambank’ – an extensive database allowing researchers to explore specific questions about language diversity and grammatical structures.
Grambank is the largest comparative grammatical database to-date, and holds over 400,000 data points and 2400 languages.
“We’re thrilled to release Grambank into the world. Our team of international colleagues built it over several years by reading many books about language rules, and speaking to experts and community members about specific languages.” – the team said.
Despite promising advances in linguistic technology, the team have already noted their findings as a “crisis” and want to draw awareness to gaps in teaching and globalization.
“Our findings are alarming: we’re losing languages, we’re losing language diversity, and unless we do something, these windows into our collective history will close.” – they said.
Using Grambank’s library, researchers studied more than 2,400 languages – including two signed languages, to answer 195 questions. Results were plotted on a map, using dots and color coding to identify each language.
Explaining their system, the team said “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 onto red, green and blue.” Adding – “The large variation in colors reveals how different all these languages are from each other. Where we get regions with similar colors, such as in the Pacific, this could mean the languages are related, or that they have borrowed a lot from each other.”
Addressing the alarming findings, the study’s abstract states, “An analysis of the consequences of language loss reveals that the reduction in diversity will be strikingly uneven across the major linguistic regions of the world.”
The team noted that most frighteningly, South America and Australia are expected to lose all of their indigenous linguistic diversity without immediate intervention, due to the threatened nature of all indigenous languages in these areas.
Acknowledging a threat to Indigenous and minority languages, the team also set out to explore additional impacts on grammatical diversity. Studying rules and structures across a variety of languages, provides an insight into cognitive ability and logic, and how the concept of meaning is transferred. In this instance, the researchers used grammar to explore linguistic history in context and how our future may be affected.
All findings point to a desperate need for Indigenous language preservation and revitalization, and the team have included references to the UN’s Decade of Indigenous Languages as well as more localized grassroots movements in their published works.
“Without sustained efforts to document and revitalize endangered languages, our linguistic window into human history, cognition, and culture will be seriously fragmented.” – the study concludes.