Global Language Networks

Recent research on global language networks has interesting relations to big history, complexity economics, and current politics.

Yesterday I ran across this nice little video explaining some recent research on global language networks. It’s not only interesting in its own right, but is a fantastic example of science communication as well.

I’m interested in some of the information theoretic aspects of this as well as the relation of this to the area of corpus linguistics. I’m also curious if one could build worthwhile datasets like this for the ancient world (cross reference some of the sources I touch on in relation to the Dickinson College Commentaries within Latin Pedagogy and the Digital Humanities) to see what influences different language cultures have had on each other. Perhaps the historical record could help to validate some of the predictions made in relation to the future?

The paper “Global distribution and drivers of language extinction risk” indicates that of all the variables tested, economic growth was most strongly linked to language loss.

This research also has some interesting relation to the concept of “Collective Learning” within the realm of a Big History framework via David Christian, Fred Spier, et al.  I’m curious to revisit my hypothesis: Collective learning has potentially been growing at the expense of a shrinking body of diverse language some of which was informed by the work of Jared Diamond.

Some of the discussion in the video is reminiscent to me of some of the work Stuart Kauffman lays out in At Home in the Universe: The Search for the Laws of Self-Organization and Complexity (Oxford, 1995). Particularly in chapter 3 in which Kauffman discusses the networks of life.  The analogy of this to the networks of language here indicate to me that some of Cesar Hidalgo’s recent work in Why Information Grows: The Evolution of Order, From Atoms to Economies (MIT Press, 2015) is even more interesting in helping to show the true value of links between people and firms (information sources which he measures as personbytes and firmbytes) within economies.

Finally, I can also only think about how this research may help to temper some of the xenophobic discussion that occurs in American political life with respect to fears relating to Mexican immigration issues as well as the position of China in the world economy.

Those intrigued by the video may find the website set up by the researchers very interesting. It contains links to the full paper as well as visualizations and links to the data used.


Languages vary enormously in global importance because of historical, demographic, political, and technological forces. However, beyond simple measures of population and economic power, there has been no rigorous quantitative way to define the global influence of languages. Here we use the structure of the networks connecting multilingual speakers and translated texts, as expressed in book translations, multiple language editions of Wikipedia, and Twitter, to provide a concept of language importance that goes beyond simple economic or demographic measures. We find that the structure of these three global language networks (GLNs) is centered on English as a global hub and around a handful of intermediate hub languages, which include Spanish, German, French, Russian, Portuguese, and Chinese. We validate the measure of a language’s centrality in the three GLNs by showing that it exhibits a strong correlation with two independent measures of the number of famous people born in the countries associated with that language. These results suggest that the position of a language in the GLN contributes to the visibility of its speakers and the global popularity of the cultural content they produce.

Citation: Ronen S, Goncalves B, Hu KZ, Vespignani A, Pinker S, Hidalgo CA
Links that speak: the global language network and its association with global fame, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) (2014), 10.1073/pnas.1410931111

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“A language like Dutch — spoken by 27 million people — can be a disproportionately large conduit, compared with a language like Arabic, which has a whopping 530 million native and second-language speakers,” Science reports. “This is because the Dutch are very multilingual and very online.”

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Starbucks Causes Cancer!?

Coffee is about as likely as anything to cause cancer, so putting up a sign about it isn't really going to help anyone but the "sign lobby."

Apparently Starbucks has learned well from big tobacco and they’re getting ahead of the whole cancer thing whether or not they really need to. This morning while picking up my morning tea (and apple fritter), I ran across a Prop 65 warning very prominently posted–ironically above the aspartame, though that wasn’t mentioned specifically in the notice–about the cancer risks of acrylamide.

Prop 65 Warning at Starbucks All the fine print boils down to saying that coffee might cause cancer.
Prop 65 Warning at Starbucks
All the fine print boils down to saying that coffee might cause cancer.

I’ve read a fair amount about acrylamide in the past two years following the news that just about anything cooked or fried has small trace amounts of the substance, so I know there’s not too much to be worried about. The biggest “scare” was apparently over french fries–particularly those served at fast food restaurants. Apparently after the scare blew over the general public – the subject just didn’t seem to catch any traction aside from a few snippets in the mainstream press–Starbucks has decided to get out ahead of this “non-issue” just in case. (I will admit that the State of California has actually sued and won against major corporations under the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, Health and Safety Code section 25249.6, also known as “Proposition 65,” that businesses must provide persons with a “clear and reasonable warning” before exposing individuals to these chemicals which includes acrylamide.)

As an aside, I will mention that placing the warning on the condiments counter which I visit only after I’ve made my purchase seems a bit after-the-fact – it would have done me more good in front of the cash register. For the ambulance chasers, this is probably great “grounds”–pun intended–for a major class action.


Chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer and reproductive toxicity, including acrylamide, are present in coffee, baked goods, and other foods or beverages sold here. Acrylamide is not added to our products, but results from cooking, such as when coffee beans are roasted or baked goods are baked.  As a result acrylamide is present in our brewed coffee, including coffe made at home or elsewhere from our beans, ground or instant coffee, baked goods or other foods sold here, in grocery stores or other retail locations.

Your personal cancer risk is affected by a wide variety of factors.  For more information regarding acrylamide, see For more information about acrylamide and Proposition 65, visit

As posted in Starbucks Coffee, Lake Avenue, Pasadena, CA

While I laud their savvy general counsel, do we really need this type of notice in our lives? Humankind has been living with acrylamide cancer risk since the dawn of the Holocene when man first learned to use fire to cook, is there any reason to worry about it now?

I’m reminded of Jared Diamond’s book The World Until Yesterday and some of the things that primitive societies simply learn to live with, but which our overly litigious society just can’t seem to deal with logically. Simple things didn’t fool primitive societies like: don’t sleep under trees that look like they are dead or possibly rotting–just in case the tree falls over and kills you in the night while you’re sleeping. Yet somehow some of us need additional warnings about our coffee from McDonald’s being served hot  or cautions not to operate our toasters in the bathtub.

Next I fear that we’ll discover we need signs telling us that pinecones might fall out of pine trees.

Photo of large pine tree with an inordinately large caution sign next to it stating "Caution: Falling Cones."
“Caution Falling Cones”
Photo taken about 20 miles from Jared Diamond’s home in Los Angeles.

I sure hope that Henny Penny copyrighted, registered, and patented everything about the concept of “The Sky is Falling” as I’m sure it’ll have made her the richest chicken in the world.

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Book Review: Jared Diamond’s “The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?”

I’m honestly shocked that no one else has written a book similar to The World Until Yesterday: What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies prior to now. It’s certainly a wonderful synthesis and a fantastic resulting thesis based on an incredibly broad array of areas of study over a lifetime of work.

I personally don’t think that it is as significant as Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies was, though perhaps it should be just as (if not more) ground shaking for modern society. As a long-time student of evolutionary biology and other fields related to this work, I’m not as impressed with the effort as I might otherwise be since most of the overarching thesis is second nature to me. It does however have some superb anecdotes and broad reviews of large areas of literature to provide some excellent motivation that I might not otherwise have spent the time to find thus giving it some excellent value to me.

The World Until Yesterday by Jared Diamond (bookcover)

As for others in the general public, I highly recommend it for it’s simple and clear examples and the ultimate thesis which are exceptionally worth reading (and implementing) into one’s life as well as into broader areas of modern society. If nothing else, it points out how drastically life has changed for human societies even in the last 150 years, much less the last 10,000.

For those in the field or with an interest in Big History, this is certainly a must-read and possibly an excellent place to start for those without any background at all.

Based on my own personal background, I’d give this 3 stars (in terms of it’s direct value to me), but for the general public it’s easily a 5 star work. I do wish that it had been more traditionally and extensively footnoted, but for a broader audience I certainly understand Dr. Diamond’s reasons for publishing it as he did.