16.11.2021 Peter Ranacher

More than maps: Spatial patterns of language evolution


When languages evolve, they often leave behind traces in space. Speakers of neighbouring languages are likely to interact and exchange properties, increasing the linguistic similarity in specific geographic regions. When languages spread and split, speakers gradually lose or alter some properties of their ancestors. At the same time, they might adapt to new environmental conditions, changing their linguistic repertoire.

Subtle similarities, geographic gradients and hidden spatial correlations allow us to reconstruct language evolution and shed light on its underlying mechanisms. This endeavour has recently gained considerable momentum thanks to the advance of quantitative methods from evolutionary biology, spatial statistics and geographic information science. In this talk, we present current methods to explore spatial patterns of language evolution. We show how in the Bantu migration, phylogeographic signals implicitly encode potential reasons fueling the geographic spread. We trace language contact in South America, the Balkans and the Ancient Near East. We infer contact in the phylogenetic reconstruction of the Indo-European languages. We detect areal formation processes on the British Isles and explore how languages and culture coevolve in North-East Asia. Ultimately, we show that the role of geography in inferring language evolution is more than just maps.