Researchers behind largest ever grammar database warn Australian Indigenous languages at risk

Indigenous languages in northern Australia are among those most at risk of disappearing according to researchers who have built a large-scale database documenting the diversity of current global languages.

The database ‘Grambank’ systematically documents more than 2,400 separate languages and dialects, and about 215 language families across all continents. 

Languages are described according to 195 features, including words and sounds used, structure and word order, tense, comparatives and the presence of gendered pronouns.

Grambank is the largest comparative grammatical database available intended for documenting and preserving human communication. 

It was initiated by researchers at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Germany and is described in Science Advances. More than 100 authors from 68 institutions, including the University of Colorado Boulder, contributed to the years-long, global data project.

While the database is built on previous research and prior examples, the size and consistent approach allows for comparative analysis, such as comparing the influence of geography or genealogy on language development.

The researchers say none of the languages or dialects in the dataset are identical. 

“It means that every language is pretty darn special,” says CU Boulder assistant professor Hannah Haynie, the co-first author of the study.

The database is halfway towards capturing the 4,300 languages with published grammatical descriptions, out of about 7,000 known languages in the modern world.

Language experts estimate, without intervention, one language will be lost every month for the next 40 years. The loss of languages has occurred throughout history but social, political and economic pressures are speeding up this process. 

Using an approach drawn from ecology, the researchers used their database to analyse the languages most at risk based on an ‘agglomerated endangerment scale’. The scale ranges from safe (e.g. if a language is used in national, regional, educational or written contexts) through to extinct (if not used, or only as a second language).

Indigenous languages in northeast South America, Alaska to Oregon, and in northern Australia were considered at highest risk.

“Right now we’re at a critical state, in terms of language endangerment,” says Haynie, noting that the United Nations has declared this the International Decade of Indigenous Languages to try to promote language preservation, documentation and revitalization.

Please login to favourite this article.