Language Shape

How widely do languages differ, why do they differ, and what do these differences tell us about people and their diverse communicative needs? Currently only around 10-15% of the world’s 7,000 languages are well described, and many of the remaining 85-90% are highly endangered, including almost all of the languages of our region.

Rampant language shift to colonial languages like English or Indonesian means that most languages in the region will disappear within the next century, and with each one a library of its culture’s history and knowledge of the natural world. Exploring the 7,000 natural experiments represented by the world’s languages is an immense task, and yet such work can ‘give the impossible a chance’ by discovering design solutions previously thought not to exist.

The Shape program is exploring the design space of language by investigating a strategic selection of little-known languages of our region. We will push forward efforts to document this language heritage by a broad range of methods, drawing on innovative approaches and technologies; building the first large corpora of Indigenous Australian and Papuan languages; and initiating new research on how intergenerational variation can reveal different design solutions evolving in languages to solve similar social communicative problems.

The research program is made up of four main strands:

  • Australian Government
  • The University of Queensland
  • Australian National University
  • The University of Melbourne
  • Western Sydney University