3.2 Linguistic Diversity: Definition & Overview

Jan 12, 2020 | ch3 How Language Impacts the Brain, Cognitive Psychology, Courses

Language can be considered a particularly human invention. People need language to communicate with one another in order to survive. This lesson explores why there are so many languages and how these languages may be compared.

Why are Language, Groups Important?

What makes people different from all the other animals that surround us on this planet? Different people will give you different answers, but one answer that often appears is the ability of people to use language. Other animals do possess forms of communication, through body language, vocalization, eye contact, and other means. However, humans are often considered unique in their creation and use of language to communicate with one another.

Language is a systematic form of communication that can take a variety of forms. Systematic refers to the fact that language is composed of rules. Language is an important part of culture, elements of knowledge, ideas, beliefs, etc., that are passed along from one generation to the next. Language is a great vehicle for knowledge because people use it to tell their children stories and other lessons that will guide them through life. As an element of culture, language helps people with the proper knowledge to communicate with others. This communication can be performed for a variety of reasons, but the important thing about language is that it helps people to work in groups.

So, why are groups important? A single person can only do so much. Compared to other creatures on our planet, humans have very little in the way of physical adaptations. There are many animals that are stronger, faster, and tougher. Through group effort, facilitated by culture and communication, humans have become the dominant species on our planet.

An important element is knowledge. With knowledge comes the ability to modify one’s environment to suit one’s needs as well as a variety of ways to resist the forces of nature. Most people’s knowledge is based upon what they have learned from other people. Experience is a great teacher, but language allows people to communicate their experiences so many other people can learn from them.

Linguistic Diversity

Linguistic diversity is sometimes a specific measure of the density of language, or concentration of unique languages together. This diversity covers varied types of traits including language family, grammar, and vocabulary. The linguistic diversity of a place, like a country or locale, can be rendered as a numerical measurement, called the linguistic diversity index. The index gives the probability that any given people will not share a first language. The number then ranges from 0, meaning everyone speaks the same language, to 1, meaning no languages are shared.

Language Families

There are thousands of languages in the world, and some estimates go as high as six thousand. On a planet with seven billion people, this would mean that over a million and a half people speak each language. However, this isn’t exactly the case. Many languages are spoken only by a few hundred to a few thousand people. Most of these small groups of speakers are found in small tribal groups in the more wild areas of the world. In fact, the more isolated a group of people is from their neighbors, the more likely they are to speak a distinct language. By the same token, if a group is not isolated, they tend to share languages or linguistic traits with their neighbors.

This tendency of linguistic traits to be shared among groups that live near one another leads to the development of language families. Much like a biological family, a language family consists of languages with common constituent elements. These elements represent the historical roots of these families. Some language families are huge and consist of dozens of languages.

Some families may count other, smaller families among their number. For instance, the Indo-European family consists of most of the languages in Europe and the Middle East. This family also includes the Romance languages such as French and Spanish. The Indo-European family gave rise to Latin, the common linguistic ancestor of both French and Spanish. Not all languages are part of a larger family, though, and many native languages were formed in relative isolation.

Shared Linguistic Traits

Linguistic traits that are shared by related languages include vocabulary and grammar. Vocabulary refers to the way that words are given meaning. Sharing vocabulary does not always mean that the words are the same, just that they are formed from the same or similar roots. For instance, the word hand in French is le main, while in Spanish it is mano. Both of these are somewhat similar to the Latin term for hand, manu.

Grammar represents the manner in which words are combined into sentences and larger units in order to have a meaning. Grammar among related languages may be similar, but isn’t always. Basic grammatical elements include tense, which indicates when actions take place, whether in the past, present, or the future. Other elements can include grammatical functions like subject, who is performing the action in the sentence, or object, what the action is being performed upon. Often, these grammatical elements depend upon the purpose of a language.

Many trade languages exist among different neighboring groups of people. Since the purpose of this language is for commerce, terms and features are borrowed from one group or another for how many trade goods or how much money is exchanged. One wouldn’t want to talk philosophy with someone in a trade language, however, as it simply isn’t expansive enough to say everything one might want to say on a topic, but it is enough to communicate.

Lesson Summary

Language is a tool used by people to communicate with one another. As a part of culture, language helps people to stick together and do things that they could not have done as individuals. Linguistic diversity is a way to talk about varied types of traits including language family, grammar, and vocabulary. A language family is a group of languages with related origins that share some traits. Such families may consist of a handful or dozens of languages, and smaller language families may be part of larger families. Linguistic traits that may be compared among language groups include vocabulary and grammar.

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