Hans-Jörg Bibiko, Martin Haspelmath & Bernard Comrie, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig


The World Atlas of Language Structures: an interactive cross-linguistic database for typological research

The WALS (World Atlas of Language Structures; Dryer et al. 2005) is a large database of structural (phonological, grammatical, lexical) properties of languages gathered from descriptive materials (such as reference grammars) by a team of more than 40 authors (many of them the leading authorities on the subject). It will be published as a printed book in traditional atlas format, accompanied by a fully searchable electronic version that also allows various visualization effects.

The World Atlas of Language Structures consists of 142 maps with accompanying texts on diverse features (such as vowel inventory size, noun-genitive order, passive constructions, and 'hand'/'arm' polysemy), each of which is the responsibility of a single author (or team of authors). Each maps shows between 120 and 1000 languages, each language being represented by a dot, and different dot colors showing different values of the features. Altogether 2600 languages are shown on the maps, and 55,000 dots give information on features in particular languages.

The World Atlas of Language Structures thus makes information on the structural diversity of the world's languages available to a large audience, including interested nonlinguists as well as linguists who would not normally read grammars of exotic languages or specialized works by comparative linguists. Although endangered languages are not particularly emphasized, they are automatically foregrounded because of the large sample of languages represented on each map, where each language (independently of its number of speakers) is shown by a single dot.

The interactive database (available on first CD-ROM, later probably on the web) will allow the atlas user to view the maps in a variety of different forms, as well as to combine features, i.e. to generate compound features and to display these as well. The interactive database will also contain additional information on languages (genealogical classification, alternative names) and on each language-feature pair (bibliographical reference, example sentence).

The interactive maps can be zoomed and panned, dot colors and shapes can be customized, a few map properties (rivers, country names, etc.) are switchable, and languages can be searched by language name, family and genus name, country, and region within country. With the 'mouse over' effect the corresponded language name is shown immediately and with a click the language profile appears in a separate window. The generation of compound features will be very useful for typological research. For example, the user will be able to correlate the existence of an question-word-fronting rule with particular word order types, the existence of tone with the size of the consonant inventory, or the alignment type (accusative, ergative, active-inactive) with the head-dependent marking type. Furthermore geographical and genealogical information can be included.

Reference
Dryer, Matthew & Haspelmath, Martin & Gil, David & Comrie, Bernard (eds.) 2005. World Atlas of Language Structures. (Book with interactive CD-ROM) Oxford: Oxford University Press.