The Most Common Words in PanLex

March 7, 2019 ||

The PanLex Database contains a large diversity of languages and dialects. This diversity allows us to explore interesting language facts, illuminated by casting PanLex’s wide net across the languages of the world.

One question, originally suggested by our founder and director emeritus Dr. Jonathan Pool was:

What’s the most common word in the PanLex Database?

To answer this question, we surveyed each word in the PanLex Database and tallied the number of languages it occurs in, regardless of differences in meaning across languages. Showing up in a grand total of 1,166 languages and dialects is:


This is actually quite expected—ma (or similar sounding words) is an extremely common word for “mother” in many languages around the world due to the fact that ma is often the first syllable babies are able to make. (See this Wikipedia article for more information).

Painting of mother standing and holding baby in her arms, foreheads touching.

Mother and baby. (Image by KaMenezes.)

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Radically inclusive machine translation gets mainstream press

March 7, 2019 ||

In a recent article, linguist Gretchen McCulloch of WIRED magazine echoes PanLex’s series on radically inclusive machine translation. She notes that only a small number of languages have well-supported machine translation. Most of the world’s 7,000 languages have little or no machine translation support, including some with tens of millions of speakers. However, that could all change with the progress made by researchers using monolingual social media posts to begin constructing translation data sets. How are they doing it? …read McCulloch’s article here

PanLex on the Moon

February 21, 2019 ||

PanLex has long envisioned having a global impact for the good of humanity. Now PanLex is going beyond Earth, to the Moon!

Full moon as seen from space with dark sky in background.

Full moon. (Image by Wikimedia Commons.)

Press release:

The Arch Mission Foundation today announced the upcoming launch of the first installment of their Lunar Library™, a 30 million page archive of civilization, created as a backup to planet Earth. The library will be delivered to the Moon as part of SpaceIL’s lunar mission, scheduled for launch on Thursday, February 21st, starting 8:45 PM EST.

Israel’s SpaceIL Beresheet lunar lander launched from Cape Canaveral on a used SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It is traveling with Nusantara Satu, an Indonesian communications satellite, and a U.S. Air Force satellite and is scheduled to land on the Moon in April 02019.Read More…

Fake Words Are Based On Real Words

January 14, 2019 ||

Each month, PanLex generates and publishes new “fake words” such as “unequalitis” and “adjustache” to entertain our newsletter readers in the Fake Word of the Month challenge. But how, exactly, are these fake words generated? We use an emergent property of the linguistic information contained in the PanLex Database, and a simple probabilistic algorithm.

Translation quality

If you have used the PanLex Translator, you may have noticed that beside each translated word is a small red bar, of varying lengths. This bar represents PanLex’s translation quality score, a measure of the level of confidence we have in that particular translation of the original word into the target language. The translation quality score is based on the number of PanLex sources the translation is found in, and the quality of those sources. (PanLex can also infer translations that are not directly attested in any single source. We will leave discussion of inferred translation quality scores to a future post.)

PanLex Translator App with red bars indicating relative quality of translations of English “house” into French.

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Will climate change kill linguistic diversity? Or save it?

January 10, 2019 ||

Hidden in plain sight

In 2010, I traveled to Los Angeles to meet thought leaders and funders, and raise awareness about the issue of plastic pollution – which at the time was a largely unknown problem, and one almost completely absent from the societal discussion and the mainstream media. At a fundraiser event, I happened to meet filmmaker Michael Nash, who had just finished a documentary movie entitled Climate Refugees. We instantly found commonality in our seemingly quixotic quests: we were both passionate individuals trying to shine light on global issues with massive impact, that at the time were being largely ignored by the mainstream. I owe to this meeting, and to watching his still very relevant film, an early concern with one of the biggest humanitarian and security crises our world is facing today.

Refugee shelters in the Dadaab camp, northern Kenya, July 2011. (Image by Pete Lewis, Department for International Development.)

Nine years later, still not enough people know that climate change has been the main source of displaced people in our world for over a decade. In fact, since 2008, weather-related events triggered by climate change have displaced an average of 21.5 million people every year.Read More…