Many of the world’s languages face serious risk of extinction. Efforts to prevent this cultural loss are severely constrained by a poor understanding of the geographical patterns and drivers of extinction risk. We quantify the global distribution of language extinction risk—represented by small range and speaker population sizes and rapid declines in the number of speakers—and identify the underlying environmental and socioeconomic drivers. We show that both small range and speaker population sizes are associated with rapid declines in speaker numbers, causing 25% of existing languages to be threatened based on criteria used for species. Language range and population sizes are small in tropical and arctic regions, particularly in areas with high rainfall, high topographic heterogeneity and/or rapidly growing human populations. By contrast, recent speaker declines have mainly occurred at high latitudes and are strongly linked to high economic growth. Threatened languages are numerous in the tropics, the Himalayas and northwestern North America. These results indicate that small-population languages remaining in economically developed regions are seriously threatened by continued speaker declines. However, risks of future language losses are especially high in the tropics and in the Himalayas, as these regions harbour many small-population languages and are undergoing rapid economic growth.
The most recent issue of Nature has an article on internal diversity in Australian genetics. It includes intriguing data about the mapping between linguistic diversification and genetic diversification.
The population history of Aboriginal Australians remains largely uncharacterized. Here we generate high-coverage genomes for 83 Aboriginal Australians (speakers of Pama–Nyungan languages) and 25 Papuans from the New Guinea Highlands. We find that Papuan and Aboriginal Australian ancestors diversified 25–40 thousand years ago (kya), suggesting pre-Holocene population structure in the ancient continent of Sahul (Australia, New Guinea and Tasmania). However, all of the studied Aboriginal Australians descend from a single founding population that differentiated ~10–32 kya. We infer a population expansion in northeast Australia during the Holocene epoch (past 10,000 years) associated with limited gene flow from this region to the rest of Australia, consistent with the spread of the Pama–Nyungan languages. We estimate that Aboriginal Australians and Papuans diverged from Eurasians 51–72 kya, following a single out-of-Africa dispersal, and subsequently admixed with archaic populations. Finally, we report evidence of selection in Aboriginal Australians potentially associated with living in the desert.
by Stef Spronck
Read the paper here. Below is the abstract:
This paper analyses reported speech, thought and epistemic modality in the North Western Australian Aboriginal language Ungarinyin. It demonstrates how these grammatical domains interact in the language to encode multiple perspective meanings. The paper concludes by discussing some implications of the Ungarinyin patterns for expressions of complex perspective elsewhere.
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.
By William A. Kretzschmar Jr., Ilkka Juuso, and C. Thomas Bailey
This paper describes the independent construction and implementation of two cellular automata that model dialect feature diffusion as the adaptive aspect of the complex system of speech. We show how a feature, once established, can spread across an area, and how the distribution of a dialect feature as it stands in Linguistic Atlas data could either spread or diminish. Cellular automata use update rules to determine the status of a feature at a given location with respect to the status of its neighboring locations. In each iteration all locations in a matrix are evaluated, and then the new status for each one is displayed all at once. Throughout hundreds of iterations, we can watch regional distributional patterns emerge as a consequence of these simple update rules. We validate patterns with respect to the linguistic distributions known to occur in the Linguistic Atlas Project.
Alternating generations again again: a response to Wierzbicka on generation moieties
By David Nash
In a recent paper Wierzbicka (2013a,b) \(W) proposed eight ‘cultural scripts’ to supplement two definitions to capture the meaning of the pronominal category of alternate generation moiety as in the Dalabon language of north Australia. After detailing some problems with the analysis, I show that, in the author’s own terms, two definitions can replace the eight ‘cultural scripts’. The replacement definitions are more readily comprehensible, and capture more accurately the denotation of alternate generation moieties. Categories such as these moieties are not well described by a prototype approach. Also, the pair of moiety terms need to be recognised as a terminological set. W’s eight ‘cultural scripts’ are mostly logical equivalents of my proposed definitions, and not culture-dependent norms as implied by the label. Such a large discrepancy between the two accounts calls for adjudication between them, and also calls into question the method used by W to arrive at her account.
The Sequential Evolution of Land Tenure Norms
By Geoff Kushnick, Russell Gray, Fiona Jordan
Land tenure norms have long fascinated scholars of human society (de Lavaleye, 1874; Engels, 1884; Maine, 1876; Morgan 1877), as they define the relationship between people and the land, and the rules that regulate how the land can be used, possessed, and redistributed. Centuries of scholarship have painted a relatively clear picture of the diversity of land tenure norms, but a focused account of their evolution has yet to emerge. At the root of the problem is a lack of reliable historical accounts of land tenure transformations. Archaeological data may provide more depth, but it is often difficult to make direct inferences about land tenure norms (Earle, 2000). For these reasons, an alternative approach is necessary.