Moment of truth? Engineers devise model to predict when your language is going to die . . .

Dennis Baron debaron at UIUC.EDU
Fri Feb 15 23:23:47 UTC 2008

There's a new post on the Web of Language:

Moment of truth? Engineers devise model to predict when your language  
is going to die . . .

Two engineers from Cornell University’s Department of Theoretical and  
Applied Mechanics have devised a mathematical model to predict when  
the language that you’re speaking right now is going to die.

After studying what’s been happening to Gaelic and Welsh, which are  
succumbing to English, and Quechua, an indigenous language of South  
America that is being eroded by Spanish, Daniel Abrams and Steven  
Strogatz used probability theory and some graphs to prove that when  
languages compete, one of them will go extinct. The winner then moves  
on to the next round in the game of survival of the fittest language.


The “take no prisoners” language wars have been going on as long as  
languages helped define homo sapiens as human about 200,000 years  
ago, give or take (or, if you’re a creation scientist who thinks the  
world is only 6,000 years old, give or take, ever since the Tower of  
Babel suffered a catastrophic structural failure that any good  
mechanical engineer could have predicted).

But the battle of the languages has been heating up, and the bad news  
is that, for most of the world’s languages, time is running out.  
According to estimates, there are about 5,000 languages in use today,  
and up to two of them die each month. So in the four and a half years  
since the Cornell research was reported in the journal Nature, as  
many as 125 endangered tongues have gone the way of Latin, Sumerian,  
Cornish, a Celtic language of England that survived into the 19th and  
possibly the early 20th century, and Eyak, an Alaskan language whose  
last speaker died last month.

read the rest on The Web of Language

Dennis Baron
Professor of English and Linguistics
Department of English                                   	
University of Illinois	

608 S. Wright St.
Urbana, IL 61801

office: 217-244-0568
fax: 217-333-4321

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