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WALS Online: Maps and Information about the World’s Languages

Submitted by on March 8, 2012 – 7:34 pm |  
The World Atlas of Language Structures Online (WALS) is another treasure trove of maps and information about the world’s languages. Information can be searched either by language or by linguistic feature. The latter range from sound systems (e.g. use of tones; see map on the left), to grammar (e.g. the Order of Subject, Object and Verb), to the vocabulary (e.g. whether a given language has the same or different words for ‘arm’ and ‘hand’). While some features covered in this database are fairly technical (e.g. Weight Factors in Weight-Sensitive Stress Systems), others may be of interest for non-specialists too. For example, one of the features involves the range of words for ‘tea’ in the world’s languages: some languages, such as Russian, derive their word for ‘tea’ from Sinitic cha, while others, including English, derived them from Min Nan Chinese te. The map showing this distribution also serves to illuminate patterns of trade in this commodity, as the words often migrated with the product itself.

Each of the nearly 200 features is discussed in a brief text, written by over 50 experts in linguistic typology, many of them at Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, which also hosts the site. Discussions of each feature also include a section examining the geographical distribution of the given feature. Furthermore, each feature can be mapped in a customizeable Google-Maps-based map, where either all or some values of a given feature may be mapped: for example, the map above shows only one of the three values of the “tone systems” feature, languages that have a complex tonal system. As can be seen from that map, such languages cluster in West and Central Africa, and in East and Southeast Asia. An additional bonus of this database is that it allows us to combine two features and to examine their correlation. For example, how does the “Arm vs. Hand” feature, mentioned above, correlate with whether a language has the same or different words for ‘finger’ and ‘hand’? Or does having an umbrella term for ‘red’ and ‘yellow’ correlate with having an umbrella term for ‘green’ and ‘blue’? These and similar questions can be examined — and mapped — by using the WALS Online site.

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