Language Diversity in the World

About the Profile Area

This research field, based in the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics (LUCL), brings together descriptive, historical and theoretical linguistics, as well as psycho- and neurolinguistics. Nowhere else in Europe is such a broad range of languages studied than here in Leiden. The LUCL combines unique expertise in the field of Africa, Indian America, South and Central Asia, Southeast Asia and Oceania, East Asia and Siberia, and Eurasia and Europe. LUCL researchers also participate in the interdisciplinary Leiden Institute for Brain and Cognition, where they co-operate with psychologists, biologists and medical researchers.

Descriptive Linguistics

Every description of a new language expands the linguist's laboratory. There are six thousand languages spoken worldwide, of which two-thirds have yet to be described. As many as 96% of the world population speaks just 4% of all languages. A quarter of the world’s languages are spoken by groups of less than 1,000 people. Almost all these groups live in the most vulnerable areas of the world. Of all languages, 50 to 90% will probably die out in the course of the current century. These are primarily languages which have not yet been documented. With their extinction, complete knowledge systems and cultures will be lost. And with the extinction of each as yet undescribed language the understanding of the phenomenon of language diminishes. Conversely, every description of a new language expands the linguist’s laboratory.

The impact of research in descriptive linguistics is directly visible in theoretical linguistics, the branch of linguistics which studies the structure of language and language as a characteristic of human cognition. Theories have to be tested, not only on English or German, but on as many languages as possible. All languages that are spoken or that have handed down texts together constitute the laboratory in which linguists conduct their research: they allow them to distill proto-languages, and discover how languages develop, how they converge or diverge, and how they resemble one another or differ. Linguists also study how language is produced or perceived in the brain and what can go wrong, how children acquire language, which phenomena and structures are universal and which are specific to particular languages or language groups.

Last Modified: 18-09-2013