12 March, 2011

Modelling Language Survival

Some physicists in Spain, led by Jorge Mira Pérez, have produced an interesting mathematical model for how languages succeed and fail (see here). Their particular interest in this case is in what happens to languages where two coexist in the one location. This question is one with more than academic interest in Spain, a country where the central language, Spanish (or Castilian), has to deal with a host of other languages spoken by people in regions. In these regions, the local languages (not limited to Basque, Catalan, and Galician) coexist with Spanish. As languages are often bound up with questions of ethnic and national identity, the projected likelihood of any particular Spanish language surviving can have significant long-term political ramifications.

Now, of course, the fellows producing this model are physicists and they are not directly familiar with the socio-political factors that can strengthen or weaken a language, though they did attempt to factor some of these into their results. Their model nevertheless produced some interesting findings. They reckoned that there are three factors that allow two languages to coexist indefinitely in an area. Firstly, there needs to be a significant number of speakers of each language there. Secondly, the languages need to be somewhat similar. And thirdly, there needs to be a large bloc of people who can speak both languages. Their model is apparently fairly good at retrospectively predicting the historical data on the relative strength of Spanish and Galician in northwest Spain.

The last requirement is being presented as the most surprising one, but I was struck by their model's suggestion that the two co-existing languages need to be somewhat similar. I think maybe this might be resulting from the model being over-based on the situation in Galicia, where the researchers are based. I find it difficult to see how the coexistence of two similar languages in an area can be stable into the long term. My expectation would be that the languages would merge (or that one would absorb the other) if they were that similar, or else that over time the differences in the languages would be accentuated and they would diverge into more straightforwardly dissimilar tongues. Particularly with similar languages sharing a space, one has to ask the question what are the two languages for? If the language is basically a form of communication then why two similar ones when one language will do. If languages instead serve at least partly as badges of group identity then wildly different languages do the job far better.

Still, for all that the model can be criticised, any attempt to abstract the question of what makes languages survive and fail is to be welcomed, as it takes the debate away from the more emotive and political question of whether languages should be assisted or left to fend for themselves. At this stage, though, the model is clearly too weak to even think of making any kind of policy-prescriptions based on it. As this is an area I am not particularly familiar with, I am curious as to whether there are other people working in this area and producing more robust models.

From Hunting Monsters

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