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Toward a Mechanistic Understanding of Linguistic Diversity

Michael C. Gavin, Carlos A. Botero, Claire Bowern, Robert K. Colwell, Michael Dunn, Robert R. Dunn, Russell D. Gray, Kathryn R. Kirby, Joe McCarter, Adam Powell, Thiago F. Rangel, John R. Stepp, Michelle Trautwein, Jennifer L. Verdolin and and Gregor Yanega
BioScience
Vol. 63, No. 7 (July 2013), pp. 524-535
DOI: 10.1525/bio.2013.63.7.6
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/bio.2013.63.7.6
Page Count: 12
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Toward a Mechanistic Understanding of Linguistic Diversity
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Abstract

Our species displays remarkable linguistic diversity. Although the uneven distribution of this diversity demands explanation, the drivers of these patterns have not been conclusively determined. We address this issue in two steps: First, we review previous empirical studies whose authors have suggested environmental, geographical, and sociocultural drivers of linguistic diversification. However, contradictory results and methodological variation make it difficult to draw general conclusions. Second, we outline a program for future research. We suggest that future analyses should account for interactions among causal factors, the lack of spatial and phylogenetic independence of the data, and transitory patterns. Recent analytical advances in biogeography and evolutionary biology, such as simulation modeling of diversity patterns, hold promise for testing four key mechanisms of language diversification proposed here: neutral change, population movement, contact, and selection. Future modeling approaches should also evaluate how the outcomes of these processes are influenced by demography, environmental heterogeneity, and time.

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