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Published in Science Advances, the resulting research found that grammatical structure is highly flexible across languages, determined by common ancestry, usage and cognitive limitations, and linguistic connectivity.
The Grambank project was initiated by the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, in collaboration with a team of more than a hundred linguists from around the world.
Grambank, the world’s largest and most comprehensive database on the structure of languages, allows researchers to answer some of these questions. It is the result of international collaborations between the Max Planck Institutes in Leipzig, University of Kiel (Germany), University of Nijmegen (Netherlands), Australian National University, University of Auckland (New Zealand), Harvard University and Yale University (USA), University of Turku (Finland), Uppsala University (Sweden), and SOAS (UK), the Endangered Languages Documentation Program and more than 100 researchers from around the world.
Its coverage covers 215 different language families and 101 languages isolated from all inhabited continents. Hedvig Skirgard, who coordinated much of the coding and lead author of the study, explains, “The design of the feature questionnaire initially required several revisions in order to include the many different solutions languages have developed for encoding syntactic features.”
The team chose 195 grammatical characteristics, from word order to the presence or absence of gender pronouns. For example, many languages have separate pronouns for “he” and “she,” but some also have the masculine and feminine forms of “I” or “you.” The potential “design space” would be enormous if syntactic properties could vary freely.
Difference boundaries can relate to cognitive principles rooted in memory or learning, making some grammatical structures more likely than others. Borders can also relate to historical ‘accidents’, such as descent from a common language or contact with other languages.
Researchers have discovered a much greater flexibility in combining grammatical features than many theorists had thought.
“Languages are free to vary greatly in a quantifiable way, but not without limits,” Stephen Levinson, director emeritus of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen and co-founder of the Grambank project, explains in a statement. A sign of the exceptional diversity of the 2,400 languages in our sample is that only five of them occupy the same position in the design space (sharing the same grammatical characteristics). “
Languages show much more similarity to those with a common ancestor than to those in contact. “In general, genealogy trumps geography,” says Russell Gray, director of the Division of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution and lead author of the study.
He adds, “However, if the processes of evolution and linguistic diversity were to take place again from the beginning, there would still be some resemblance to what we have now. History In the organization of grammatical structures, there are also regular patterns.”
Levinson concludes, “The extraordinary diversity of languages is one of humanity’s greatest cultural wealth. This endowment is threatened, particularly in some regions such as northern Australia and parts of South and North America. Without a sustained effort to document and revitalize endangered languages, our linguistic window on human history and cognition is And the culture will be severely fragmented.”
The Grambank database is a comprehensive open access resource maintained by the Max Planck Society. “It puts linguistics on the same level as genetics, archeology and anthropology in terms of large-scale, accessible quantitative data,” says Gray.
“I hope it will facilitate exploration of the links between linguistic diversity and a wide range of other cultural and biological traits, from religious beliefs to economic behavior, musical traditions and genetic lineages,” he says. “These connections with other aspects of human behavior will make Grambank a key resource not only in linguistics, but in the interdisciplinary endeavor to understand human diversity.”
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