Social Sciences

The database demonstrates the diversity of the world’s languages.

What factors influence language structure? Language contact, constraints on cognition and usage, and common ancestry all influence grammatical structure, according to a new study by an international team of researchers.

The Grambank database, which contains information on grammatical structures in more than 2,400 languages, was used in the study. The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, started the project with help from a team of more than one hundred linguists from all over the world in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution. The work is distributed in the journal Science Advances.

Variation in languages has long intrigued linguists. What are universal or common patterns among languages? What restricts their potential for variation? Some of these questions can be answered by researchers thanks to Grambank, the world’s largest and most comprehensive database of language structure.

“In order to incorporate many of the diverse solutions that languages have evolved to code grammatical properties, the feature questionnaire design initially required numerous revisions,”

Hedvig Skirgård, who coordinated much of the coding and is the lead author of the study.

More than one hundred scholars from around the world, as well as the Max Planck institutes in Leipzig and Nijmegen, the Australian National University, the University of Auckland, Harvard University, Yale University, the University of Turku, Kiel University, Uppsala University, SOAS, and the Endangered Languages Documentation Program, collaborated on the creation of Grambank. Grambank covers 101 isolates from all inhabited continents and 215 distinct language families.

Hedvig Skirgrd, who coordinated a lot of the coding and is the study’s lead author, says, “The design of the feature questionnaire initially required numerous revisions in order to encompass many of the diverse solutions that languages have evolved to code grammatical properties.”

Limits on variety
The group chose 195 syntactic properties, going from word request to whether a language has gendered pronouns. For instance, there are male and female versions of “I” and “you” in some languages, as well as separate pronouns for “he” and “she.” If grammatical properties were to vary freely, there would be a huge “design space” available. Some grammatical structures are more likely than others to be restricted by cognitive principles rooted in memory or learning. Limitations could also be caused by historical “accidents,” like being born into a language or having spoken other languages.

Contrary to what many theorists had assumed, the researchers discovered a lot more flexibility in the combination of grammatical features. Stephen Levinson, one of the Grambank project’s founders and emeritus director of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, says, “Languages are free to vary considerably in quantifiable ways, but not without limits.” Only five of the 2,400 languages in our sample occupy the same location in design space (share the same grammatical properties), which is evidence of the extraordinary diversity of the languages.

Dialects show a lot more noteworthy similitude to those with a typical progenitor than those they are in touch with. ” According to Russell Gray, senior author of the study and Director of the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, “genealogy generally trumps geography. “Nevertheless, there would still be some similarity to what we have today if the processes of linguistic evolution and diversification were repeated from the beginning. While there is a great deal of historical contingency in the organization of grammatical structures, there are also regular patterns due to the constraints of human cognition.”

Diversity under threat

“One of humanity’s greatest cultural endowments is the extraordinary diversity of languages,” concludes Levinson. This resource is in jeopardy, particularly in parts of South and Northern America and Northern Australia. Our linguistic window into human history, cognition, and culture will be severely fragmented if ongoing efforts are not made to document and revive endangered languages.”

The Grambank information base is an extensive open-access asset kept up with by the Maximum Planck Society. ” According to Gray, “it places linguistics on an even footing with genetics, archaeology, and anthropology in terms of quantitative, large-scale, and accessible data.” I hope that it will make it easier to look into connections between linguistic diversity and a wide range of other cultural and biological characteristics, like economic behavior, religious beliefs, musical traditions, and genetic lineages. Grambank will be a crucial resource not only in linguistics but also in the multidisciplinary endeavor of comprehending human diversity because of these connections to other aspects of human behavior.

More information: Hedvig Skirgård et al, Grambank reveals the importance of genealogical constraints on linguistic diversity and highlights the impact of language loss, Science Advances (2023). DOI: 10.1126/

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