I’m inherently skeptical of attempts to link linguistic history with genetic history, so I was glad to see this piece (thanks, Paul!) by Cathleen O’Grady reporting on Nicole Creanza, Merritt Ruhlen, Trevor J. Pemberton, Noah A. Rosenberg, Marcus W. Feldman, and Sohini Ramachandran, “A comparison of worldwide phonemic and genetic variation in human populations,” PNAS, whose abstract says:
Linguistic data are often combined with genetic data to frame inferences about human population history. However, little is known about whether human demographic history generates patterns in linguistic data that are similar to those found in genetic data at a global scale. Here, we analyze the largest available datasets of both phonemes and genotyped populations. Similar axes of human geographic differentiation can be inferred from genetic data and phoneme inventories; however, geographic isolation does not necessarily lead to the loss of phonemes. Our results show that migration within geographic regions shapes phoneme evolution, although human expansion out of Africa has not left a strong signature on phonemes.
O’Grady quotes Dr. Dan Dediu, who researches linguistics and genetics at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, as saying:
“This is a very interesting and important addition to the field, not only because it uses such a large database and introduces (relatively) new methods to the field, but also because of its findings… If its main finding survives replication with other databases and methods, then it’s a very powerful confirmation of the idea that demographic processes are one of the main driving forces behind both linguistic and genetic diversity. It also highlights the fact that language and genes have different properties, especially when it comes to small, isolated communities and contact between populations.”
I don’t assume that genetic history is entirely irrelevant to linguistics, but it’s too tempting and too common to try to smash them together and produce a falsely detailed picture of the past, so I’m glad to see research like this producing a more nuanced view.