We Have 6,909 Living Languages. How Did This Happen?

Fagjun | Published 2017-07-24 01:17

Photo by Mike Wilson


There are currently 6,909 living languages in the world right now, but there are only 196 countries. How do people living in the same geographical area come up with multiple diverse languages?


Researcher Michael Gavin noticed something interesting about how languages developed across the world. Populations in lower latitudes—those below the equator—had more languages than those in higher latitudes. This, of course, made Gavin and his colleagues curious. Why do some places develop so many languages, while others develop much fewer?


This isn't the first time that researchers noticed this difference in language density across the world. There has been at least one other study that has paid attention to the high number of languages in places south of the equator. Another study, meanwhile, explored why there are so many languages in the world and how they came into existence.


A Map of Languages


While the previous studies on the matter had been substantial, Gavin and his colleagues saw that there's still a need for more explanations about language diversity. After all, simply living somewhere south of the equator doesn't automatically or magically make people develop and speak different languages.


Thus, the researchers took a different approach that other researchers haven't tried yet. Two of Gavin's teammates were ecologists, and they used a simulation modeling technique that they commonly used for studying species diversity. The group wanted to test this technique on exploring the diversity of living languages on the Australian continent.


The team's resident linguist created a map of the 406 aboriginal languages that exist in Australia. Upon inspection, the team found that there were more languages along the coasts and in the northern areas than there were inland. With this information in hand, the team created a model that can predict the patterns on the map.


There were three assumptions that the team included in the model. First, they assumed that people will move to live in unoccupied areas. Second, the rainier it was in an area, the more people it can support. Third, once a group reaches a certain population limit, it splits into two groups.


The model was ultimately able to produce 407 languages, which is just one off of the actual number of languages.


A Template for Studying Living Languages

Photo by Mauro Mora


Of course, what's applicable in Australia may not be applicable in other places. The researchers suspect that the model they created may not fit with other locations and populations. After all, a lot of things influence the development of language. Ecology, interaction between groups, and subsistence strategies can all contribute to the rise of differing languages within the same geographical area.


According to Gavin, there's surprisingly little information about the diversity and density of living languages. However, it's a fascinating subject. There are people in the world that live just within view of another group of people that speak a completely distinct language. For now, Gavin and his colleagues have come up with a template that can help other researchers build the same kind of study in different areas of the world.

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