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Linguistic Diversity Through the Prism of Biodiversity


There are around 7,000 spoken languages in the world and around half of those are threatened by extinction. This linguistic diversity serves as an invaluable resource, offering insights into our species’ unique communication system, as well as understanding how our brains process languages. Interestingly, the diversity of languages is not evenly distributed across the globe, but rather distributed in a spatial pattern reminiscing biodiversity patterns. Recent advances in data availability, including detailed demographic, biotic, climatic, and remote sensing data, have paved the way for a quantitative analysis of these spatial patterns.


A series of papers from the last two decades has partially succeeded to explain linguistic diversity through geographical conditions but fails to consider that such diversity could easily be obliterated by local expansions, especially since colonial times. New AI models developed by one of the PIs (Andermann et al. 2022) have the potential to predict the language diversity potential of a given site, which will allow the researchers to identify areas with recent language diversity loss by subtracting the actual language diversity at a site from the potential diversity at that site.


To track endangered languages and assess their potential extinction risk, the researchers have identified a unique suitability of computational models originally developed for biodiversity research. This is expected to work since the mechanisms driving biodiversity and linguistic diversity are similar in nature. The project seeks to reassess the drivers of linguistic diversity, model the evolution of speaker communities, and situate linguistic diversity within cultural diversity and biodiversity.


The project could benefit society through an improved recognition of linguistic diversity components and their ecological limits, a state-of-the-art database featuring endangerment, speaker numbers and future projections, and a contribution to the wider understanding of biodiversity with one of the most important human cultural features. Specifically, databases with speaker numbers are in high demand due to their numerous linguistic and societal applications, and will be made open-access and long-term archived through integration in Glottolog.


Start: September 2023
End: December 2025

Project type

Seed-Money between WASP-HS and DDLS


Universities and institutes

Uppsala University

Project members

Harald Hammarström


Uppsala University

Tobias Andermann

Assistant Professor

Uppsala University