Rivers of Words

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Science  25 Apr 2014:
Vol. 344, Issue 6182, pp. 340
DOI: 10.1126/science.344.6182.340-a

The distribution of the ∼7000 remaining linguistic groups around the globe is highly heterogeneous, with high linguistic diversity in Africa (2562 living languages) and Asia and the Pacific (2762), and less diversity in Europe (396) and the Americas (1132). As with species distribution, evidence—for example, latitudinal gradients in the density of some human languages and a correlation between landscape elevation and language density—suggests that the environment plays an important role in language distributions.

Using a variety of publicly available data sets, Axelsen and Manrubia compare 14 environmental variables, including human population density, against linguistic diversity both globally and for several continental regions (the Americas, Europe, Africa, and the Asia Pacific region). Statistical analysis of partial correlations between the 14 different factors reveals specific local dependencies in individual regions. For example, low linguistic diversity in the Americas is most correlated with population density and linked to the effects of European colonization. Globally, rivers and landscape roughness (altitude) are the most important factors underlying high linguistic diversity. Landscape roughness may promote linguistic isolation and diversification, whereas the transportation function that rivers provide may have brought disparate language groups together, seeding the formation of new ones.

Proc. R. Soc. London Ser. B 10.1098/rspb.2013.3029 (2014).

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