The World Atlas of Language Structures

I don’t want to do a huge post today because I have a lot going on right now. So I thought I’d share one of my favorite language websites I found a little while back, which combines my love of language with my love of maps:, the World Atlas of Language Structures.

Do yourself a favor, go there and look in the “chapters” section. Each one of those is a short essay talking about features of languages, classifying the world’s languages according to their features and placing them in a map of the world. I’ll go through a few which are interesting even if you don’t know all that much about linguistics.

Let’s start with this one. This one talks about plurality in languages. It classifies languages based on whether or not words have plural forms, and whether specifying grammatical number (e.g. plural vs. singular) is optional or not. Some languages specify number, but only in nouns referring to humans. Chinese is set apart from English in both regards: specifying number is strictly optional (in my personal experience, it’s generally only used when addressing a group of people), and can only be used in regards to humans. If you want to say there are multiple dogs in Chinese, you’re going to get into numeral classifiers, which WALS also has a chapter on.

Here’s a link. Be sure to click on the “go to map” button.

Here’s another fun one, this one is on the past tense. Chinese, and indeed about 40% of the languages surveyed in this chapter (out of 222) have no past tense whatsoever. Instead, that you’re talking about the past is conveyed simply by including when something happened, and then understood implicitly for the rest of the conversation. For example, if I say, “Yesterday I come home,” while this statement is obviously grammatically incorrect, its meaning is clear. In Chinese, this is precisely how you would say, “I came home yesterday.”

But moreover, some languages have multiple past tenses. These may be for expressing how long ago something happened. If something happened yesterday, I would use a different tense than I would if I were talking about the formation of the heavens and the earth.

Here’s the link. You’ll have to scroll down a bit for the map.

The last one is on reduplication. English doesn’t really feature this, but it’s quite prominent in both Chinese and American Sign Language. In fact, English is in the minority here. Only 55 of 368 languages represented do not feature reduplication. Different languages use it for different things. One possibility is intensity: 干净 is “clean”, but 干干净净 might be more like “squeaky clean”. In ASL, reduplication sometimes changes the meaning of a word: SIT is a verb, but CHAIR is SIT twice in rapid succession. These are just two simple examples. The article on WALS gives a much more exhaustive list of uses of reduplication.

Here’s the link. Scroll down to the “function” section to see all the uses of reduplication.

I encourage you to look at the other chapters if you’re interested. There’s well over a hundred, covering a very wide range of subjects. Sometimes I feel like I’ve spent more time on this site than tvtropes.

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Creator of Sethian. My personal email is grantkuning at gmail. Kickstarter: Facebook: Twitter:

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