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The (un)likely link between environment and languages

Environmental factors condition the distribution of plant and animal species, but to what extent do they impact human behaviour? The debate on climatic determinism was already heated between the philosophers Montesquieu and Voltaire in the 18th century. It also received special attention in more recent studies, which show a decreasing linguistic diversity from the equator towards the poles and suggest that environment does influence linguistic geography, and by extension human culture. These findings oppose alternative explanations for language diversity such as population dynamics, migrations, drift and psycho-socio-cultural mechanisms and demonstrate that a consensus is still lacking as to what factor(s) influence present day language distributions.

The (un)likely link between environment and languages
Linguistic diversity in New Guinea is one of the highest in the world (each occurrence point in the map
 corresponds to the approximate geographical center point of the geographical area where a given
language is spoken) most of which belong to either the Trans New Guinea language family (dark
green dots) or the Austronesian language family (dark blue dots). The vertical line in the center
of the Main Island of New Guinea represents the international border between Papua New
Guinea in The East and the Indonesian Provinces of Papua and West Papua in the West
[Credit: Glottolog 3.0,]

Using an original, multivariate statistical approach based on methods borrowed from biodiversity studies, a French-German team tackled the issue concerning the possible link between environment and language distributions at a detailed regional scale in New Guinea and obtained three interesting results, now published in PLOS ONE.

First, their approach, which they coined “Eco-Linguistic Niche Modelling”, offers, for the first time, a means to simultaneously take into account a range of environmental variables and to test their influence on each linguistic group independently, i.e., without assuming that environmental variables will influence all linguistic groups in the same way, regardless of the specific subsistence strategies and socio-cultural adaptations of the speakers. Interestingly, the 29 investigated language groups of Mainland and Island New Guinea show different types of environmental correlations.

The (un)likely link between environment and languages
Map of ecoregions in New-Guinea after the World Wide Fund For Nature
[Credit: © WWF]

Second, they found that most language groups share their eco-linguistic niche with other language groups. This suggests that there is no clear correlation between environment and the geographical distribution of language groups. Other factors, such as those depending on psycho-socio-cultural aspects of human behaviour, most likely play a more decisive role in language diversification.

Third, and in contrast to what is observed for language groups, language families show only minor niche overlap. This may indicate that environment does influence the expansion and distribution of languages belonging to the same language family.

The (un)likely link between environment and languages
Speakers of the Mek language group, which belongs to the large Trans New Guinea language family,
 live in the Highlands of Mainland New Guinea (Star Mountains, Province of Papua, Indonesia)
 [Credit: © W. Schiefenh√∂vel]

These findings should have important implications for future ethno-linguistic, ethno-archaeological and archaeological research in New Guinea and elsewhere, as it offers a common framework in which high-resolution environmental, linguistic and psycho-socio-cultural variables can be correlated in a systematic way.

It is hoped that ultimately the fascinating aspects of human linguistic and cultural diversity will be better understood.

Source: Max-Planck-Gesellschaft [October 09, 2020]

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