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Out of Asia: Linguistic Diversity and Population History

Applicant Widmer Paul
Number 183578
Funding scheme Sinergia
Research institution Institut für Vergleichende Sprachwissenschaft Universität Zürich
Institution of higher education University of Zurich - ZH
Main discipline Interdisciplinary
Start/End 01.09.2019 - 31.08.2023
Approved amount 2'885'554.00
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All Disciplines (4)

Discipline
Interdisciplinary
Genetics
Other languages and literature
Other disciplines of Environmental Sciences

Keywords (8)

population genetics; historical linguistics; geography ; phylogeographic modeling; phylogeography of domesticated species; demographic history of Eurasia and the Americas; comparative linguistics; linguistic diversity

Lay Summary (German)

Lead
Räumliche Analysen von Sprachdaten deuten darauf hin, dass die sprachliche Vielfalt weltweit sehr ungleichmässig verteilt ist. Sowohl in Bezug auf die Anzahl Sprachen als auch in Bezug auf ihre strukturellen Merkmale (Eigenschaften der Grammatik) weisen einige Weltregionen eine deutlich höhere Vielfalt auf als andere Regionen.
Lay summary
Einer der rätselhaftesten Unterschiede ist dabei der zwischen Eurasien und Amerika. Eurasien weist grosse Gebiete mit grosser struktureller Homogenität auf: Es finden sich hier wenige, aber geografisch weit verstreute Sprachfamilien. Amerika hingegen ist geprägt von grosser Diversität und einer Fülle von kleinen und kleinsten Sprachfamilien. Gleichzeitig zeigen die Humangenetik und die Archäologie, dass die Bevölkerungen beider Regionen ursprünglich einen gemeinsamen Ursprung in Asien haben, wobei einige Einflüsse und Migrationen bis in die jüngste Zeit andauern. Wie sind die Unterschiede zwischen Eurasien und dem amerikanischen Kontinent entstanden? Eine Theorie lokalisiert die Ursache dafür in Amerika, indem sie entweder eine schnelle Diversifizierung während der ersten Besiedlung oder eine unvollständige Sprachkonvergenz aufgrund geringer Zeittiefen annimmt. Eine andere Theorie sucht die Ursache in Eurasien und geht von einer schnellen Homogenisierung nach intensivem Kontakt während des Holozäns aus.
Dieser Fragenkomplex wird im vorliegenden Projekt mithilfe einer engen, interdisziplinären Zusammenarbeit zwischen Experten auf dem Gebiet der historischen Linguistik, der Sprachdiversitätsforschung, der Geographie und der Genetik untersucht. Unterstützt werden sie dabei von Spezialisten für räumliche und zeitliche Diffusionsmodelle und für Phylogenetik.
Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 04.11.2019

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Associated projects

Number Title Start Funding scheme
182845 Ergativity, Event Cognition and Evolutionary Biases in Language 01.10.2019 Project funding (Div. I-III)
204081 Utilizing Deep Learning in Map Generalization (DeepGenln) 01.02.2022 Project funding (Div. I-III)
182318 Evolutionary functional genomics of selfing and polyploid speciation 01.12.2018 Project funding (Div. I-III)
160739 Linguistic morphology in time and space (LiMiTS) 01.02.2016 Sinergia
157918 Online-Edition der Paippalada-Rezension des Atharvaveda 01.01.2017 Editionen
160011 Ergativity in comprehension and production: language typology and processing 01.02.2016 Project funding (Div. I-III)
170241 The Evolution of Noun Phrases in Indo-Iranian: empirical foundations and theoretical modeling 01.09.2017 Project funding (Div. I-III)

Abstract

Geographical analyses of available datasets suggest that linguistic diversity is highly uneven in the world. Both in terms of languages and in terms of their structural features (properties of grammars), some world regions show strikingly higher diversity than other regions. One of the most puzzling differences is between Eurasia and the Americas. Eurasia shows large areas of relative structural homogeneity, with few but geographically far-flung language families, while the Americas reveal a rich patchwork of heterogeneity at different scales and an abundance of small-scale language families and isolates. At the same time, genetic and archaeological evidence shows that both regions were originally populated from the same origins in Asia, with some influences and migrations continuing into more recent times. How did the differences between Eurasia and the Americas arise, given their shared origins? One group of theories locates the cause of this in the Americas, positing either rapid, isolated diversification during the initial settlement, accelerated diversification driven by conscious identity preservation, or incomplete language convergence due to shallow time depths. Another group of theories locates the cause in Eurasia, positing rapid homogenization in the wake of intensive contact during the Holocene. The evidence for all scenarios remains ambiguous, and they are all challenged by a possible population bottleneck that may have severely reduced language diversity early in the settlement history of the Americas.Progress in resolving these questions is hampered by a lack of sufficient resolution in reconstructing the population history between now and the settlement time, and by a lack of spatially and temporally explicit models that combine linguistic and demographic data. Our project breaks out of this impasse by increasing the historical resolution through the modern genomics of humans and domesticated plants and animals, and by using the resultant demographic history to constrain spatio-temporal models of the diffusion of languages and linguistic structures in a geographical information system framework. Concretely, we will combine evidence from genomics and geography to reconstruct key events in the demographic history of Eurasia and the Americas, such as large changes in population size, migration routes, or admixture events. We will then take these events to constrain models of language evolution in specific regions. For example, we will link local population size increases to language-splitting events (nodes in the tree) in order to constrain and compare phylogeographical models. We will link admixture events to accelerations and synchronizations of rates in phylogenetic models in order to assess effects of language contact on feature distributions. By so doing, we will reconstruct a rich picture of the prehistory of language families and their structures. The emerging picture will allow us to decide between competing models of what happened after the settlement of the Americas and why the current geographical distribution of linguistic homogeneity and diversity reached their current patterns.The key to success of this enterprise is extraordinarily tight cross-disciplinary cooperation between experts in historical linguistics, geography, and genetics, supported by developers of cutting-edge methodologies in spatial and temporal diffusion models and phylogenetics. In an ongoing SINERGIA project we have already gained substantial experience in close collaboration between linguistics and geography and have begun to develop novel methodology that can now be directly used. In an ongoing UZH-sponsored project we have also gained expertise in close collaboration between genetics and linguistics and have started to jointly reconstruct local histories and to model the impact of population admixture on contact-induced language change.
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