Language families, human families

Razib Khan over at ScienceBlogs has an excellent post today on the relationship between population genetics and the spread of languages around the globe. He gives a wide background of the anthropological, linguistic and biological research behind what we know about the evolution of the world’s languages. Razib quotes a 1997 paper by L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, Genes, peoples, and languages:

Most patterns found in the analysis of human living populations are likely to be consequences of demographic expansions, determined by technological developments affecting food availability, transportation, or military power. During such expansions, both genes and languages are spread to potentially vast areas. In principle, this tends to create a correlation between the respective evolutionary trees. The correlation is usually positive and often remarkably high. It can be decreased or hidden by phenomena of language replacement and also of gene replacement, usually partial, due to gene flow.*

The post also reviews a recent paper by Ger Reesink, Ruth Singer, and Michael Dunn: “Explaining the Linguistic Diversity of Sahul Using Population Models”.

The authors studied the languages of Sahul,  the continent that during the last Ice Age covered the area of modern Australia and New Guinea. Using “a Bayesian phylogenetic clustering method, originally developed for investigating genetic recombination”, the authors examine ” the underlying structure of the diversity of these languages, reflecting ancient dispersals, millennia of contact, and probable phylogenetic groups.”

The post is here, and the papers, cited below, can be downloaded by following the links in their titles.

  1. L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza (1997) Genes, peoples, and languages. Proc. Natl . Acad. Sci . USA
    Vol. 94, pp. 7719 –7724.
  2. Reesink G, Singer R, Dunn M. (2009) Explaining the Linguistic Diversity of Sahul Using Population Models. PLoS Biol 7(11): e1000241. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1000241
*Errata: The first blockquote in this post was originally attributed to the Reesink paper – that was incorrect. The quote was taken from the Cavalli-Sforza paper. That has been corrected in this edited post.

The death of language?

BBC News reports on the state of endangered languages around the world: an estimated 7,000 languages are being spoken around the world. But that number is expected to shrink rapidly in the coming decades. What is lost when a language dies?

In 1992 a prominent US linguist stunned the academic world by predicting that by the year 2100, 90% of the world’s languages would have ceased to exist.

Far from inspiring the world to act, the issue is still on the margins, according to prominent French linguist Claude Hagege.

“Most people are not at all interested in the death of languages,” he says. “If we are not cautious about the way English is progressing it may eventually kill most other languages.”

According to Ethnologue, a US organisation that compiles a global database of languages, 473 languages are currently classified as endangered.

Article is here.

Indus Valley Script

From the most recent New Scientist:

Scholars at odds over mysterious Indus script
19:00 23 April 2009 by Ewen Callaway

An as yet undeciphered script found on relics from the Indus valley constitutes a genuine written language, a new mathematical analysis suggests.

The finding is the latest chapter in a bitter dispute over the interpretation of “Indus script”. This is the name given to a collection of symbols found on artefacts from the Indus valley civilisation, which flourished in what is now eastern Pakistan and western India between 2500 and 1900 BC.

In 2002, a team of linguists and historians argued that the script did not represent language at all, but religious or political imagery.

Read more here.