Researchers launch Grambank, shed light on language loss

You’ve likely heard the oft-cited statistic that one language dies every 40 days — a study published earlier this month aims to shed some light on what that decline in linguistic diversity means for the study of linguistics and human cognition.

The study, published in Science Advances on April 19, details the creation of Grambank, a grammatical database of more than 2,400 languages and dialects. The researchers then used it to answer a series of questions about the nature of linguistic diversity, such as constraints on the evolution of certain grammatical features and the consequences of declining linguistic diversity.

“Grambank is showing us the importance of working on language documentation and revitalization in order to preserve this legacy of human communication, culture and cognition,” Hannah Haynie, one of the co-authors of the study said in a news release. “Right now we’re at a critical state in terms of language endangerment.”

The researchers who conducted the study collected data on the grammatical features of 2,467 languages and dialects (or, 2,430 unique languages). In creating the database, the researchers flagged 195 different grammatical features, such as grammatical gender, definite and indefinite articles, and noun reduplication. 

Analysis of those features was used to determine what constraints there are on the grammatical features that can evolve in a language — this analysis found that linguistic evolution is not tightly constrained yet far more constrained than genetic evolution, for instance.

As linguistic diversity continues to decline, certain regions will be more hard-hit than others — the researchers predict that areas like northern Australia will lose all of their indigenous languages, for instance, while safer areas like Southeast Asia will still lose about 25%. This uneven distribution of language loss means that some of the more unique grammatical features in the database may not be well-documented, negatively impacting the cultural identity of their speakers and linguists’ understanding of human cognition.

“The impact of language loss will be strikingly uneven across the major linguistic regions of the world, highlighting the need for increased work on language documentation and revitalization in regions such as Northeast South America, Alaska-Oregon, and northern Australia,” the study reads.

Andrew Warner
Andrew Warner is a writer from Sacramento. He received his B.A. in linguistics and English from UCLA and is currently working toward an M.A. in applied linguistics at Columbia University. His writing has been published in Language Magazine, Sactown Magazine, and The Takeout.


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