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Lecture | Language and the Human Past

Hidden patterns in space: What geography can tell us about language evolution.

Friday 5 April 2024
Language and the human past
Cleveringaplaats 1
2311 BD Leiden


Language evolution is shaped by two main processes: inheritance and contact. Inheritance involves the transmission of linguistic properties across generations, akin to biological evolution, while language contact occurs as speakers interact and exchange linguistic features. Inheritance and contact give rise to distinct patterns, many of which have a geographic dimension. When interpreted correctly, these patterns offer fascinating insights into the geography of language evolution, addressing questions such as how languages and linguistic properties spread in space, which languages have had contact, and where interactions have occurred.

While some geographic patterns of language evolution are readily apparent, others remain elusive, obscured by the passage of time or overshadowed by more dominant trends. This talk focuses on uncovering these more challenging patterns. We will contrast potential drivers for the diffusion of Bantu languages in sub-Saharan Africa, trace the migration of the Walser people in Swiss-German dialect data, and identify regions of historical language contact in South America. Additionally, we will explore the relationship between grammar and genes in Northeast Asian languages. Through these examples, the talk aims to shed light on what geography can tell us about language evolution.

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