Are the World’s Languages Consolidating? The Dynamics and Distribution of Language Populations
The Economic Journal,
October (4th Quarter/Autumn)
Scholars have long conjectured that the return to knowing a language increases with the
number of speakers. Recent work argues that long-run economic and political integration accentuate
this advantage, leading larger languages to increase their population share. I show
that, to the contrary, language size and growth are uncorrelated for languages with 35,000
speakers. I incorporate this finding into an evolutionary model of language population dynamics.
The model’s steady-state follows a power law and precisely fits the size distribution
of the 1,900 languages with 35,000 speakers. Simulations suggest the extinction of 40% of
languages with <35,000 speakers within 100 years.