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Language Redux : Présentation

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For understanding human prehistory, language history is one of the principal points of access. Like genes, languages link us through a chain of transmission to long gone ancestors. For instance, the English pronouns I and me directly continue forms of an ancestral language that was spoken deep in the Bronze age thousands of kilometers away from where English is currently spoken as a native language.

Thus, in addition to the internal changes in vocabulary and grammar which linguists are used to studying, there is also a spatial dimension to language history: throughout the millennia, there is massive evidence for a constant ebb and flow of language expansions, diversification, and concomitant range contraction and extinction of older strata of languages. The changes through which languages develop into dialects and language families run parallel to these expansions and contrac-tions in geographical space, leading to a bewildering entanglement of linguistic processes in time and space.

Unlike the diversifying processes of language change itself, which historical linguists have been studying with great success by a time-tested methodology, we cannot yet rely on firm empirical generalizations and methods regarding the spatial dimension: we can trace the spread of individual language families on a case-to-case basis, but there is no generally applicable and empirically well-founded theory of tendencies where languages preferably spread to and where they will not spread or only late. The mirror image process –the gradual displacement and absorption of temporally earlier layers of linguistic distributions– is even less theorized.

The LANGUAGE REDUX project assumes that this lack of theorizing affects our possibilities to understand language diversity and its history negatively, and aims to develop a novel empirically based platform for research in the diachronic dynamics of language range changes to understand language prehistory.

As its empirical base, Current (black) and maximal (grey) extension of the Celtic languages the project will trace the historical and prehistoric reduction of the distribution of the ranges of languages, branches of language families, and entire language families based on detailed reviews of the qualitative literature. For instance, the map in fig. 1 shows that, as the once widespread languages of the Celtic branch of Indo-European (maximal extension in grey) gave way to later language spreads, they receded towards the rugged western margins of Europe close to the Atlantic coast (current extension, black).

By comparing the maximal extension of languages or language groups with the later reduced one, the project will be able to extrapolate environmental factors that favor language preservation generally. They will become characterizable on the basis of objective geophysical criteria (e.g. terrain rugosity, altitude, distance to major freshwater sources).

Such parts of the world are natural candidates for hosting, on continental or subcontinental scales, linguistic refuges to which representatives of ancient linguistic lineages have contracted. To assess this hypothesis we will follow a multi-pronged approach that involves agent-based simulations of language diversification in relation to environmental features and the actual distributions of lingutisic diversity in and outside relevant areas; and assess degrees of language-gene coevoluition in different environments, anchoring the project in the emerging multidisciplinary research landscape on human prehistory.

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