Why there are so many languages

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Wherever there are many different animals and plants, there are also many languages. This has been especially true since humans settled down around 12,000 years ago. With hunter-gatherers, the influence of the environment was less pronounced, as researchers now report.

There are currently still around 7,000 languages worldwide. Today, this diversity is threatened with a fate similar to that of biodiversity: if only a few speakers remain, sooner or later, the language will disappear altogether.

The study
“Environmental factors drive language density more in food-producing than in hunter-gatherer populations,” Proceedings of the Royal Society B, Aug. 22, 2018.

Language density is distributed quite differently across the globe. In Europe, it looks relatively modest; more than a hundred languages are not found on our continent. However, hundreds of languages are spoken in tiny areas in other parts of the world. The record holder is Papua New Guinea. There are over 800 languages and dialects in this island nation.

What shapes diversity
The fact that so many languages are spoken in some areas is partly due to geography, for example, when groups live in valleys that are difficult to access or on islands. But other environmental factors are also likely to play a role, as researchers led by Curdin Derungs of the University of Zurich write in their recent paper.

This reveals another parallel to biology: In fertile areas, biodiversity is usually higher than in barren regions. And where many species live, there are often minor languages with few speakers. This is because if the immediate environment has a lot to offer, people stay in manageable regions and have little contact with other groups – or so the theory goes. If, on the other hand, the environment is less diverse and thus less productive, language groups spread out over larger areas so that their livelihoods are secured.

Contradictory theories
Whether the influence of the environment on language diversity is always the same, has been historically, or has something to do with lifestyles, the Swiss team has now investigated globally. The researchers compared sedentary life with modern hunter-gatherer groups and examined two contradictory theses: If arable farming is practiced, the influence of the environment on language diversity could be less than with hunter-gatherers. This is because technical aids, such as irrigation systems, make people more independent of natural circumstances.

However, the opposite could also be true: In that case, the influence of the environment on language diversity would be exceptionally high in a sedentary lifestyle. Like hunter-gatherers, farmers do not simply move on when nature no longer provides enough.

Global Diversity
The researchers used the Glottolog database to investigate the connection, among other things. This collects languages worldwide, including those that were spoken until recently. Therefore, it reflects the diversity before the linguistic mass extinction that has been rampant over the past hundred years and in the present due to increasing globalization.

Environmental conditions were recorded using ten variables. These show, among other things, how humid an area is, the sea level, how far away the nearest body of water is, and what the average temperatures are.

Sedentariness makes you vulnerable.
The data support the second hypothesis. According to this hypothesis, the influence of nature on language diversity has not declined due to agriculture and animal husbandry or related technologies. Still, it has grown in comparison to the hunter-gatherer way of life. According to the study authors, the post-Neolithic way of life is much more vulnerable to environmental influences. Therefore, where the ecological and climatic risk is low – because it is humid, warm and fertile – there are many more languages than in arid and barren areas.

As the researchers suggest, linguistic diversity, which is nonetheless also found among hunter-gatherers, is shaped less by environmental conditions and more by social and cultural factors.

Meanwhile, the influence of the environment on language diversity is probably relatively weak. For, on the one hand, the ecological risk has long been minimized in many places by modern techniques. Moreover, in times of ongoing linguistic globalization, it is unlikely that many new languages and dialects will emerge – no matter what the environment is like. On the contrary, many minor languages will disappear forever.

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