People and the Spread of Language

 A global database has been created linking linguistic and genetic data entitled GeLaTo (Genes and Languages Together). It contains genetic information from some 4,000 individuals speaking 295 languages and representing 397 genetic populations.

How do population histories interact with linguistic histories? How do demographic changes and contact impact our linguistic diversity?


Researchers  at the University of Zurich and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig (Germany) wanted to find out the extent to which the linguistic and genetic histories of populations coincided.

“Once we know where such language shifts happened, we can better reconstruct how languages and populations spread across the world,” – Balthasar Bickel, director of the National Center of Competence in Research (NCCR) Evolving Language

Most people who speak related languages are also genetically related – but not always. And that is what interested the researchers.

As people migrate and spread across the world they often start to use the language (or some form of it) of the local inhabitants.

Some peoples on the tropical eastern slopes of the Andes speak a Quechua idiom that is typically spoken by groups with a different genetic profile who live at higher altitudes. The Damara people in Namibia, who are genetically related to the Bantu, communicate using a Khoe language that is spoken by genetically distant groups in the same area. And some hunter-gatherers who live in Central Africa speak predominantly Bantu languages without a strong genetic relatedness to the neighboring Bantu populations. 

In addition, there are cases where migrants have picked up the local language of their new homes. The Jewish population in Georgia, for example, adopted a South Caucasian language, while the Cochin Jews in India speak a Dravidian language. The case of Malta reflects its history as an island between two continents: while the Maltese are closely related to the people of Sicily, they speak an Afroasiatic language that is influenced by various Turkish and Indo-European languages.

Kentaro Shimizu, director of the URPP Evolution in Action: From Genomes to Ecosystems explained:

“It appears that giving up your language isn’t that difficult, also for practical reasons.”

The research found that it is more rare for people to preserve their original linguistic identity despite genetic assimilation with their neighbours.

Kentaro Shimizu continued:

“Hungarian people, for example, are genetically similar to their neighbours, but their language is related to languages spoken in Siberia.”

This makes Hungarian speakers stand out from among the rest of Europe and parts of Asia, where most people speak Indo-European languages, such as French, German, Hindi, Farsi, Greek and many others. Indo-European has not only been extensively studied, but also scores particularly high in terms of genetic and linguistic congruence.

“This might have given the impression that gene-language matches are the norm, but our study shows that this isn’t the case,” concluded Chiara Barbieri.

Click on this link to access A global analysis of matches and mismatches between human genetic and linguistic histories published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

credit: Google Images and One in a billion Blog

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