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mar. 21/09/2021 Does the environment shape linguistic distributions? Perspectives on language geography, isolate genesis, and areal typology
ISH, salle A. Bollier
Conférence de :
  • Matthias Urban (Universität Tübingen)

dans le cadre DILIS

Recent years have witnessed a renewed interest in questions of language geography: Why is linguistic diversity distributed unevenly across the globe, with some regions, e.g. Amazonia or Papua New Guinea, boasting a very high density of distinct languages and language families, while others do not? Why are individual properties of the sound systems and the grammar of languages often skewed in their distribution? A variety of approaches have been taken to answer these questions, but one line of reasoning that has gained prominence is to seek explanations for at least some distributions –both of languages and their features– in aspects of the physical environment (e.g. Everett et al. 2016, Derungs et al. 2018, Hua et al. 2019).

In this presentation, I set the scene by presenting a short panorama of these, and then move on to discuss recent own work on the topic. Regarding language diversity, I will be concerned specifically with the distribution and genesis of language isolates –languages that could not be convincingly linked to any other language by common descent, and that therefore form self-contained language families of their own (Urban 2021). Regarding the distribution of typological features, I will focus on the distribution of cross-linguistically relatively rare segments, specifically ejectives, whose distribution has previously been claimed to respond to altitude (Everett 2013), and uvulars, which follow a similar distribution (Urban and Moran 2020). In both regards, I test accounts for the genesis of the distributions that invoke the geophysical environment in different ways against alternative baseline accounts, and find at beast weak statistical support for the respective geophysical accounts. Finally, reporting work in progress that elaborates on Urban et al. (2019), I discuss how the areal typology of the Americas, where a geographical signal in the areal typology of western South America may not reflect environmental factors, but population prehistory.

A general conclusion is that, in order to gain adequate insights into the genesis of linguistic diversity and how, if at all, it has been shaped by the physical environment, we need a marriage of large scale quantitative big data approaches with detailed knowledge on the social, economic, and geographical (pre)historical population dynamics of the studied regions.


  • Derungs, Curdin, Martina Köhl, Robert Weibel, and Balthasar Bickel. 2018. Environmental factors drive language density more in doof-producing that in hunter-gatherer populations. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. 285: 20172851. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2017.2851
  • Everett, Caleb. 2013. Evidence for direct geographical influences on linguistic sounds: the case of ejectives. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065275
  • Everett, Caleb, Damián E. Blasí, and Seán G. Roberts. 2016. Language evolution and climate: the case of desiccation and tone. Journal of Language Evolution 1 (1): 33-46.
  • Hua, Xia, Simon J. Greenhill, Marcel Cardillo, Hilde Schneemann, and Lindell Bronham. 2019. The ecological drivers of variation in global language diversity. Nature Communications 10: 2047. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-019-09842-2
  • Urban, Matthias, Hugo Reyes-Centeno, Kate Bellamy, and Matthias Pache. 2019. The areal typology of western Middle and South America: Towards a comprehensive view. Linguistics 57 (6):1403-1463
  • Urban, Matthias, and Steven Moran. 2020. Altitude and the distributional typology of language structure: Ejectives and beyond. PLoS ONE 16(2): e0245522.https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0245522
  • Urban, Matthias. 2021b. The geography and development of language isolates 8 (4): 202232. https://doi.org/10.1098/rsos.202232

Link to online access: https://cnrs.zoom.us/j/91077349345?pwd=QjNURmFJbXZXYlNpMmt2V2laeC8zQT09



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