Borrowing a leaf from biology to preserve threatened languages

Borrowing a leaf from biology to preserve threatened languages
Austronesian languages with the highest EDGE scores, based on linguistic distinctiveness and degree of global endangerment. Credit: M. Farrell et al/McGill University

One of the world's 7,000 languages vanishes every other week, and half - including scores of indigenous North American languages—might not survive the 21st century, experts say. To preserve as much linguistic diversity as possible in the face of this threat, McGill University scientists are proposing to borrow a leaf from conservation biology.

When setting conservation goals, ecologists use evolutionary trees - diagrams that show how biological species are related to one another—to identify species that have few close relatives; such species are said to be evolutionarily distinct. Similarly, recent advances in the construction of trees make it possible to gauge how unique a language is.

"Large, well-sampled species trees have transformed our understanding of how life has evolved and helped shape biodiversity conservation priorities," says Jonathan Davies, Associate Professor of Biology at McGill and senior author of the new study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science. "The construction of more comprehensive language trees provides an equivalent opportunity for language preservation, as well as benefiting linguists, anthropologists and historians."

"The rapid rate of language loss, coupled with limited resources for preservation, means that we must choose carefully where to focus our efforts," adds Max Farrell, a PhD student in Davies' lab and co-author of the new paper. "The more isolated a language in its family tree, the more unique information it contains and ultimately contributes to ."

Tongues on the EDGE

As a case study, Farrell and co-author Nicolas Perrault, now a graduate student at the University of Oxford, used this approach borrowed from to generate rankings for 350 Austronesian languages, spoken in islands scattered across Southeast Asia and the Pacific Ocean. Data were drawn from a language tree of several hundred Austronesian languages published by University of Auckland researchers in 2009, and from Ethnologue, an online database of over 7,000 living languages. (All told, there are more than 1,200 Austronesian tongues today, making it one of the world's largest language families.)

For each of the 350 languages in the new study, the researchers combined measures of evolutionary distinctiveness (ED) and global endangerment (GE) to produce an "EDGE" score, similar to a metric used in conservation biology.

The language with the highest score was Kavalan, an exceptionally distinct yet nearly extinct language indigenous to Taiwan, where Austronesian languages are believed to have originated some 4,000 to 6,000 years ago. The next-highest scores went to Tanibili, a nearly extinct language in the Solomon Islands, and the Waropen and Sengseng languages of New Guineau.

A tool for preserving diversity

By building trees for other language groups and applying similar metrics, language specialists could target preservation efforts and help minimize the loss of linguistic diversity in the future, the researchers say.

In Canada alone, for example, there are more than 70 Aboriginal languages - most of which are considered to be endangered.

"Languages are the spark of a people, the bearing of cultures, and with their extinction we lose unique insights into human history and the evolution of language, itself," says Perrault. "Their disappearance is a loss to humanity, scholarship and science."

Explore further

Evolutionary biology can help us understand how language works

More information: "Tongues on the EDGE: language preservation priorities based on threat and lexical distinctiveness," Nicolas Perrault, Maxwell J. Farrell, and T. Jonathan Davies, Royal Society Open Science, published online Dec. 13, 2017. DOI: 10.1098/rsos.171218
Journal information: Royal Society Open Science

Provided by McGill University
Citation: Borrowing a leaf from biology to preserve threatened languages (2017, December 12) retrieved 21 September 2019 from
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Dec 12, 2017
Time moves on people. Build a dictionary as best you can and store it for archival purposes. Trying to save an old language that people don't use anymore is really a waste of time.

Dec 12, 2017
I'm going to have to differ with you there. I don't believe this is anything like the conservation of endangered species at all. I did say to build a dictionary as best they can. Like NoStrings said above, languages change all the time. Do you think someone from the 1890's would understand half of what the younger generation says now? I doubt it very seriously.
If you can figure out how to talk to animals with old dead or dying languages have at it. It would be nice if someone could translate.

Dec 12, 2017
If things had gone the right way we'd all be speaking German by now.

Dec 13, 2017
Since language cannot "evolve" from the animal level up to the sophistication at the human level, this disappearance of languages simply reinforces that fact.
If you think otherwise, please point out how language "evolved" from the so-called human ancestor in a logically realistic explanation with no hand-waving.

Languages appeared at the time of the great dispersion from Babel, created by our Creator and being very complex in structure - and hence very difficult to understand for those not in the know.
It's only now that we are busy simplifying our linguistic structures and seem to be moving towards another single dominant language since we do not find it necessary to be so expressive anymore.

Any "evolutionary" vision of language origin is just so much hubris.

Dec 13, 2017
@mackita-- firstly so-called darwinian "evolution" is impossible and that therefore only leaves the fact that humans were fully created as such.
Secondly, before there were supposedly "humans" what exactly was there that had any language as we know it?
Unless you are able to demonstrate that animals can develop a language like ours with all it's abstract and recursive structures your "evolution" of languages is dead in the water.
Humans were created with the first language ability intact. No need to "learn" a new language.
AS for your example of computers "evolving", try this: left unattended and all to itself, imagine the basic IBM PC of 1982 "evolving" it's own mouse, mouse hardware interface, mouse software, graphical card, graphics software, graphics screen and all the required hardware processing capabilities - all with no outside help or intelligence involved. Then you'll get the idea of how the supposed dumb human precusors were supposed to "evolve" a spoken language.

Dec 13, 2017
It always amazes me that people such as FredJose completely miss the irony in using computer technology and the internet to deny the scientific basis of things like evolution. It is the deep understanding of the world encompassed by explanations such as quantum mechanics which enable us to build working computers and all of the paraphenalia which make the internet work and which also enable us to build instruments such as scanning and tunneling electron microscopes and the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as laboratory techniques such as CRISPr and electrophoresis. In turn, it is these instruments and laboratory techniques which provide a basis in evidence for evolution through things like dating fossils, making visible the universe, and showing us the genetic mechanisms by which evolution works. FredJose and his fellow hypocrites can't have it both ways: if the science which supports evolution is wrong then his computer and phone don't work.

Dec 14, 2017
This thread is the textbook example of why you should never read the comments.

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