Nav: Home

Discovering what shapes language diversity

February 10, 2017

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 others?

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 languages.

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."

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," Gavin added.

One of the challenges in using the computer model is that the formula used for Australia -- including a focus on rainfall -- won't work everywhere. 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."
-end-


Colorado State University

Related Rainfall Articles:

New study could help better predict rainfall during El Niño
Researchers at the University of Miami (UM) Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science have uncovered a new connection between tropical weather events and US rainfall during El Niño years.
Mediterranean rainfall immediately affected by greenhouse gas changes
Mediterranean-type climates face immediate drops in rainfall when greenhouse gases rise, but this could be interrupted quickly if emissions are cut.
Future rainfall could far outweigh current climate predictions
Scientists from the University of Plymouth analysed rainfall records from the 1870s to the present day with their findings showing there could be large divergence in projected rainfall by the mid to late 21st century.
NASA estimates Imelda's extreme rainfall
NASA estimated extreme rainfall over eastern Texas from the remnants of Tropical Depression Imelda using a NASA satellite rainfall product that incorporates data from satellites and observations.
NASA estimates heavy rainfall in Hurricane Dorian
Hurricane Dorian is packing heavy rain as it moves toward the Bahamas as predicted by NOAA's NHC or National Hurricane Center.
NASA looks at Barry's rainfall rates
After Barry made landfall as a Category 1 hurricane, NASA's GPM core satellite analyzed the rate in which rain was falling throughout the storm.
NASA looks at Tropical Storm Barbara's heavy rainfall
Tropical Storm Barbara formed on Sunday, June 30 in the Eastern Pacific Ocean over 800 miles from the coast of western Mexico.
NASA looks at Tropical Storm Fani's rainfall rates
Tropical Storm Fani formed in the Northern Indian Ocean over the weekend of April 27 and 28, 2019.
Changes in rainfall and temperatures have already impacted water quality
Changes in temperature and precipitation have already impacted the amount of nitrogen introduced into US waterways.
NASA looks at Tropical Storm Funani's rainfall
Tropical Storm Funani (formerly classified as 12S) continued to affect Rodrigues Island in the South Pacific Ocean when the GPM satellite passed overhead and analyzed its rainfall.
More Rainfall News and Rainfall Current Events

Trending Science News

Current Coronavirus (COVID-19) News

Top Science Podcasts

We have hand picked the top science podcasts of 2020.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Our Relationship With Water
We need water to live. But with rising seas and so many lacking clean water – water is in crisis and so are we. This hour, TED speakers explore ideas around restoring our relationship with water. Guests on the show include legal scholar Kelsey Leonard, artist LaToya Ruby Frazier, and community organizer Colette Pichon Battle.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#569 Facing Fear
What do you fear? I mean really fear? Well, ok, maybe right now that's tough. We're living in a new age and definition of fear. But what do we do about it? Eva Holland has faced her fears, including trauma and phobia. She lived to tell the tale and write a book: "Nerve: Adventures in the Science of Fear".
Now Playing: Radiolab

Uncounted
First things first: our very own Latif Nasser has an exciting new show on Netflix. He talks to Jad about the hidden forces of the world that connect us all. Then, with an eye on the upcoming election, we take a look back: at two pieces from More Perfect Season 3 about Constitutional amendments that determine who gets to vote. Former Radiolab producer Julia Longoria takes us to Washington, D.C. The capital is at the heart of our democracy, but it's not a state, and it wasn't until the 23rd Amendment that its people got the right to vote for president. But that still left DC without full representation in Congress; D.C. sends a "non-voting delegate" to the House. Julia profiles that delegate, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and her unique approach to fighting for power in a virtually powerless role. Second, Radiolab producer Sarah Qari looks at a current fight to lower the US voting age to 16 that harkens back to the fight for the 26th Amendment in the 1960s. Eighteen-year-olds at the time argued that if they were old enough to be drafted to fight in the War, they were old enough to have a voice in our democracy. But what about today, when even younger Americans are finding themselves at the center of national political debates? Does it mean we should lower the voting age even further? This episode was reported and produced by Julia Longoria and Sarah Qari. Check out Latif Nasser's new Netflix show Connected here. Support Radiolab today at Radiolab.org/donate.