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The Environmental, Genetic, and Demographic Factors of Linguistic Diversity

Ryan Aponte, Robin Fintz, and Dr. Kevin Tang, Department of Linguistics, University of Florida, Gainesville FL 32611

Languages are changing at a rapid rate and in an evolving world, populations continue to interact, allowing for the borrowing of linguistic features, such as consonants, between cultures. We ask whether sound inventories could also be affected by climatic, demographic, or genetic factors that are known to influence human evolution, while modeling a probable origin of human language using data from over 400 populations.


As discovered by past research, languages change under the influence of many factors. In a 2011 study, Atkinson derived an origin of language and built a model that suggested linguistic diversity declines with increasing distance from the origin (Science). Following the serial founder effect, as humans moved out of Africa, Atkinson concluded that linguistic differentiation declined like genetic differentiation. Jaeger’s revision of Atkinson’s model (2012) also found that smaller populations correlate with reduced phonemic diversity. 


Previous work by Everett (2015) highlights how climatic factors correlate with a component of linguistic diversity. Specifically, Everett found that warm humid climates correspond to greater tonal diversity in a population’s primary language. We seek to see if incorporating these climatic factors into Atkinson’s model shifts the expected origin of language and supports his conclusion originally involving only demographic factors.


When integrating climatic factors into Atkinson’s model, they minimally affect the expected origin of West Africa. Our model may have not been significantly affected because the climatic factors we considered had conflicting effects or these factors have little influence on linguistic diversity on a global scale. Other factors, like genetics, may be more likely predictors of linguistic diversity. Additionally, highlighting influences on different components of linguistic diversity, like number of tones, may disentangle the competing factors. A more complex definition of diversity that operates at different levels of granularity could yield a more holistic understanding of language evolution.




Additional Abstract Information

Presenters: Ryan Aponte, Robin Fintz

Institution: University of Florida

Type: Poster

Subject: Linguistics & World Languages

Status: Approved


Time and Location

Session: Poster 8
Date/Time: Tue 5:00pm-6:00pm
Session Number: 5543