|FROM ||Ruben Safir
|SUBJECT ||Subject: [Hangout-NYLXS] Linguistics
|From hangout-bounces-at-nylxs.com Sat Feb 11 19:10:42 2017
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From: Ruben Safir
Date: Sat, 11 Feb 2017 19:10:40 -0500
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Subject: [Hangout-NYLXS] Linguistics
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A team of international researchers, led by Colorado State University's
Michael Gavin, have taken a first step in answering fundamental
questions about human diversity.
Humans collectively speak nearly 7,000 languages. But these languages
are not spread evenly across the globe. Why do humans speak so many
languages, and why are there so many languages in some places and so few
In a new study published in Global Ecology and Biogeography, the team
was the first to use a form of simulation modeling to study the
processes that shape language diversity patterns. Researchers tested the
approach in Australia, and the model estimated 406 languages on the
continent; the actual number of indigenous languages is 407.
The team - which includes linguists, geographers, ecologists,
anthropologists and evolutionary biologists based in the United States,
Brazil, Germany, Canada, and Sweden - adapted a form of modeling first
created by ecologists to study the processes shaping species diversity.
The researchers began with a grid on a blank map. The computer model
placed a population of people in one cell on the grid and then used a
series of simple rules that defined how the population grew, spread
across the map, and divided into separate populations speaking different
Gavin, an associate professor in CSU's Department of Human Dimensions of
Natural Resources, said that the team started with three very basic
assumptions based on untested hypotheses: groups would fill unoccupied
spaces, rainfall would limit population density, and groups would divide
when the population reached a certain limit.
"We wanted to demonstrate how this modeling approach could be used to
study aspects of language diversity," said Gavin. "We didn't expect such
a simple model to perform very well."
The video will load shortly
The computer model placed a population of people in one cell on the grid
and then used a series of simple rules that defined how the population
spread across the map. Credit: Claire Bowern, Yale University
But when the team tested this model in Australia, they found strong
evidence that the amount of rainfall and limits to group size shaped
both the total number of languages and the geographic patterns of
language diversity on the continent.
"The results provide us with a better idea of the processes that may
have shaped language diversity in Australia, and it also demonstrates a
powerful new tool for the study of human diversity," Gavin said.
Very little measurable evidence about what contributes to diversity in
languages exists. To date, Gavin said, there are fewer than 20 published
studies on the topic. Even Charles Darwin, who developed the modern
theory of evolution in the mid-1800s, was curious about the factors and
processes that create language patterns.
"It is absolutely amazing to me that we know so little about what
created these patterns of diversity that are so central to humanity,"
One of the challenges in using the computer model is that the formula
used for Australia=E2=80=94including a focus on rainfall=E2=80=94won't work=
But the model provides a starting point for additional research.
"There are several things that are unique in Australia, including stark
contrasts in the environment," Gavin explained.
"In places that have similar environmental patterns and aspects of
social organization, we'd predict that we would have a similar result,"
he said. "This may include parts of Africa, and parts of North America.
But we wouldn't predict the same results everywhere. What we have now is
a method that can be used to examine how different processes shaped the
incredible cultural and linguistic diversity we see across the globe."
Explore further: How languages shape economics
More information: Michael C. Gavin et al, Process-based modelling shows
how climate and demography shape language diversity, Global Ecology and
Biogeography (2017). DOI: 10.1111/geb.12563
So many immigrant groups have swept through our town
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