Mapping cross-linguistic similarities with Lexibank

Inspired by databases that store genetic information, an interdisciplinary team of researchers has developed Lexibank — a database that aims to help shed light on the world’s linguistic diversity and language evolution.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany and the University of Auckland in New Zealand compiled the data in Lexibank as a sort of linguistic equivalent to open-source genome sequencing technology. In a recently published paper, the researchers share the process of compiling the database, which consists of lexical data from around 2,000 languages, as well as some of the potential uses for it.

“The Lexibank wordlist collection is a first attempt to integrate the wealth of language data assembled during the past centuries,” the researchers write. “Although far away from being complete, we are convinced that the collection will provide a rich source for future investigations into the history, the diversity, and the psychology of the world’s languages.”

Lexibank allows for researchers to more easily make cross-linguistic comparisons — for example, looking at lexical data from Spanish, French, and Italian to identify shared vocabulary.  With 2,000 languages included in the database, much larger cross-linguistic comparisons can be made, and more easily than they might have been before. The researchers point out the common assertion in linguistics that the words for “mother” and “father” tend to resemble each other across many distinct, unrelated languages. Using Lexibank allows researchers to back this claim up with a substantial amount of evidence.

According to the paper, Lexibank also allows researchers to better understand the nature of language evolution. Using Lexibank, researchers can more easily observe trends and similarities in unrelated languages to gain a better understanding of human cognition. For example, many languages use just one word to refer to “hands” and “arms,” in a process called colexification. The researchers found that, many unrelated languages with this pattern also have a tendency to colexify other concepts, such as having just one word to refer to “feet” and “legs.”

“The data can be used to compute various kinds of phonological and lexical features for individual language varieties and thus actively contribute to future studies on linguistic diversity, human prehistory, and human cognition,” the researchers write.

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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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