May 23, 2013 by admin
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In his book The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver talks about the proliferation of information following the invention and history of the printing press and the potential for misinformation and errors. One example he picks out is a… Read More
Have you ever wondered why some languages seem faster than others? And, if this were truly the case, would that mean some languages conveyed more information in the same amount of time than others?
In an attempt to solve this spoken mystery, François Pellegrino of the University of Lyon conducted a study wherein 59 native speakers were engaged in reading several texts of 7 different languages aloud-the scripts held identical meanings. Along with his colleagues, he measured the number of syllables produced in accordance with the meaning they portrayed in a given amount of time.
The results proved that different language velocities are real! The fastest language in the study was Japanese with Spanish as the runner up. Mandarin ranked as the slowest. However, when evaluating the amount of meaning conveyed within each syllable, which Pellegrino terms as density, it was found that Spanish actually portrayed less information per syllable than, say, Mandarin! So, this means that just because a language is faster, more meaning is not necessarily obtained. In fact, languages tend to derive practically identical information at the same given amount of time.
When in doubt of meaning, may it be of a speed issue or not, one can always turn to the written form. But, what if there exists no such system? What if all that is known of a language has only been passed on by word of mouth? Some languages of today fall into this category! Pirahã of Papua New Guinea is an example of such.
Sadly, the dying off of older generations who hold knowledge of unwritten forms of communication has rendered some languages extinct. In 2010, for instance, Boa Sr., the last person on earth who knew Bo, an Andamanese dialect of India, died and the language along with them. Out of the estimated 7,000 languages in existence today, studies show that only about half will be around by the end of the century. Presently, 2,000 of today’s languages have less than 1,000 speakers!
All is not lost, however. As well as efforts to preserve old languages, new ones are being born. Languages are living and evolve just as we, as people, do.
Sources: http://www.unesco.org, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=fast-talkers, http://www.time.com/time/health/article/0,8599,2091477,00.html
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