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Academic Paper


Title: On the power-law distribution of language family sizes
Author: Søren K. Wichmann
Email: click here TO access email
Homepage: http://email.eva.mpg.de/~wichmann/
Institution: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology
Linguistic Field: Historical Linguistics
Abstract: When the sizes of language families of the world, measured by the number of languages contained in each family, are plotted in descending order on a diagram where the x-axis represents the place of each family in the rank-order (the largest family having rank 1, the next-largest, rank 2, and so on) and the y-axis represents the number of languages in the family determining the rank-ordering, it is seen that the distribution closely approximates a curve defined by the formula y=ax. Such 'power-law' distributions are known to characterize a wide range of social, biological, and physical phenomena and are essentially of a stochastic nature. It is suggested that the apparent power-law distribution of language family sizes is of relevance when evaluating overall classifications of the world's languages, for the analysis of taxonomic structures, for developing hypotheses concerning the prehistory of the world's languages, and for modelling the future extinction of language families.

CUP AT LINGUIST

This article appears IN Journal of Linguistics Vol. 41, Issue 1.

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