My post about native American language health gets the most hits on this blog, so I decided to do some minor editorial housekeeping on it last night. While I was fixing awkward syntax, however, I noticed something blatantly obvious about the first graph, which ranks living native languages according to most speakers:
It’s essentially a Pareto distribution, a long tail. I don’t know much about the mathematics underlying it. I only know that it arises naturally across an array of social, geographic, economic, and scientific phenomena. Derek Mueller recently wrote an article about this exact distribution amongst scholarly citations in the field of rhetoric and writing. “Conceptually,” he writes, “the long tail comes from statistics and graphing; it is a feature of a power law or Pareto distribution—graphed patterns that underscore the uneven distribution of some activity or phenomenon” (207). And yet this unequal distribution exists in phenomena as disparate as citations in academic journals and numbers of language speakers.
A power law writ deep in the mathematical fabric of things?