Have you heard of World Atlas of Language Structures online?

About a week ago, Michael from Greater Blogazonia broke the news of the World Atlas of Language Structures Online (WALS) database release. Following suite was Mark from The Ideophone, and Simon from HENRY. All three are lingustic anthropology focused blogs that I follow and trust, and they all praised this database. I’ve been poking around the database for the last seven days or so, and I’m really impressed. It is an awesome resource, executed really well, and under a creative commons license.

As I understand, the elevator pitch for WALS, is it is adatabase on all human languages. Over 2,500 languages are categorized. The structure of the database was compiled by phonological, grammatical, lexical data from over 50 different authors, which is a truly monumental effort. One of the coolest features is the integration of each language’s geographic origin using Google Maps. For anyone who wants to see where a language is spoken and what its relations are to neighboring languages, this visualization technique is perfect. For example, if you’re curious to see the distribution of and diversity of Indo-European languages, you’ll be presented with this index page:

I won’t rehash the excellent reviews done by other anthropology bloggerss, but I will close with what Mark of The Ideophone said,

“WALS Online is a formidable linguistic resource done well. It bears all the hallmarks of a well-executed web application that is here to stay for years to come.”

I humbly tip my hat to the people at the Max Planck Digital Library, and the authors who worked together to create this resource. As you may know, I’ve been working by myself to develop a similar project, but one that databases all the known hominin fossils. I’ve been working with integrating the Google Maps API into the project to show where fossils have been found, kinda to give an impression on the spread different hominids had. Synthesizing all the data is a monumental effort, and I’m impressed to see what WALS has done. I’ve got a lot to learn. I hope other anthropologists can see how great of a resource this is, and how releasing it under a liberal license, helps people learn and use the data.

5 thoughts on “Have you heard of World Atlas of Language Structures online?

  1. Note that WALS is not an atlas of languages, but of language structures. Thus, the Indo European map you link to, for example, is actually quite unhelpful if you’d want to get an idea of the distribution of the languages because they are represented only as dots, not as polygons. English is represented by a dot somewhere north of London. Besides, only a subset of the world’s languages (2500 out of an estimated 6000) is included in the dataset from which the structures are sampled. This is not to diminish the greatness of the resource, just to make clear that one does not go to this atlas to get language maps.

  2. That is very interesting. I speak Polish, a Slavic language, and I find that I can recognize phrases in other languages like Slav, Russian, and Ukranian. Now I can see how that developed.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thanks for the clarification. I’m sure the readers will appreciate the input. I knew the distinction, but for the layman WALS’ ability to display languages and their affiliations on a map is very attractive. See the comment below yours and above mine, scienceguy288 has already used it to learn something he didn’t know before.


  4. Kambiz, sure, it remains a very helpful resource even for those purposes. I was just adding the note for your readers because elsewhere I’ve seen people complaining about the fact that it doesn’t give a good impression of the distribution of, say, English.

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