Rapoport’s Rule Revisited: Geographical Distributions of Human Languages
By Michael C. Gavin, John Richard Stepp
One of the most well studied ecological patterns is Rapoport’s rule, which posits that the geographical extent of species ranges increases at higher latitudes. However, studies to date have been limited in their geographic scope and results have been equivocal. In turn, much debate exists over potential links between Rapoport’s rule and latitudinal patterns in species richness. Humans collectively speak nearly 7000 different languages, which are spread unevenly across the globe, with loci in the tropics. Causes of this skewed distribution have received only limited study. We analyze the extent of Rapoport’s rule in human languages at a global scale and within each region of the globe separately. We test the relationship between Rapoport’s rule and the richness of languages spoken in different regions. We also explore the frequency distribution of language-range sizes. The language-range area distribution is strongly right-skewed, with 87% of languages having range areas less than 10,000 km2, and only nine languages with range areas over 1,000,000 km2. At a global scale, language-range extents and areas are positively correlated with latitude. At a global scale and in five of the six regions examined, language-range extent and language-range area are strongly correlated with language richness. Our results point to group boundary formation as a critical mediator of the relationship between Rapoport’s rule and diversity patterns. Where strong group boundaries limit range overlap, as is the case with human languages, and range sizes increase with latitude, latitudinal richness gradients may result.