Tuesday, December 21, 2010

half a million language deaths?

Lera Boroditsky's recent concluding statement in The Economist's debate about how language shapes thought states "At the moment we have good linguistic descriptions of only about 10% of the world's existing languages (and we know even less about the half a million or so languages that have existed in the past) (emphasis added).

In my previous post on language death here, I used the number 100,000 to estimate how many languages have previously existed and related it favorably to David Crystal's 64,000 to 140,000 reasonable guesstimate. I'm just curious to know where Boroditsky came up with the half million number? I've managed to come up with a few references to this 500,000 number, but they claim it's a "radical estimate" (e.g., see here).

My hunch is that this is yet another example of Boroditsky's profound-problem. She has a tendency to call modest results profound when they are not. She is, I suspect, a tad prone to hyperbole.


CoffeeTeaLinguistics said...

Any talk of language birth/death makes me want to buy an island with a large, central mountain range, send a few hundred people to either side, and see what happens.

Chris said...

Sadly, there is no linguistic Galapagos...