Thursday, January 5, 2017

Language and genes: Let's think twice about it

We live in a period of time where information about anything is available to anyone. That includes papers in linguistics and genetics. Just because a person can read them, doesn’t mean that he/she can fully comprehend, process and evaluate the information given. Both linguistics and genetics are advanced sciences that require special studies and great commitment, it is not just something one can pick up in no time. They are also relatively new sciences, which means that there has been a period where those two fields have been maturing and are still maturing allowing views that were later found to be obsolete. Does that ring a bell? Maybe that many things in those fields are still open to everyone’s interpretation/selection?

You’ve definitely come across many blog/forum posts regarding languages and genes. With the rise of nationalism in our times, many have attempted to relate ethnic groups with each other, based on scarce linguistic or genetic data. Sometimes we know close to nothing about the language of a population, yet a common gene from a very small sample size is enough to make dithyrambic statements about it.

Even in the academic world the eagerness of explaining the relationship between languages and genes is a fact. For example, Cavalli-Sforza et al.’s (1992: 5620) concluded that “events responsible for genetic differentiation are very likely to determine linguistic diversification as well”. This view is not shared by most historical linguists for two reasons:

  1. A person has only one set of genes, while that person (or a population) can be multilingual, representing multiple languages.
  2. Individuals or whole communities can abandon one language and adopt another. People cannot abandon their genes nor adopt new ones.
Language shift (replacement) is common and there is no deterministic connection between languages and gene pools. Languages become extinct in populations that survive genetically while language replacement and extinction are frequent. Let’s have a look at some examples from both linguistics and genetics. A typical example of language adaptation/abandonment is seen in the near east. Many populations dropped their mother tongue for Arabic. Az-Zubayr ibn Al-Awam conquered Egypt with just 12000 men around 640 CE. The numbers of an invading army are in most cases not comparable to the local population. It is questionable if all those Arabs stayed in Egypt, but even if that is the case they were a tiny minority compared to the native Egyptian population, whose descendants today speak Arabic. The regions where Hurrian and Urartian were spoken are today inhabited by people who speak languages belonging to 3 different language families (Indo-European, Turkic and Semitic). On the reverse the same region exhibits some interesting cases. The J2 Y-haplogroup has a high frequency (and is even dominant) in populations speaking languages belonging to 5 different language families namely: Indo-European (Greeks/Cypriots, Italians, Albanians, Armenians, Kurds, Aromanian/Vlachs, Ossetians), North-East Caucasian (Ingush, Chechen), South Caucasian (Georgians, Laz), Semitic (Lebanese, Syrians, Palestinians, Jews) and Turkic (Anatolian Turks, Azeri, Kumyks). The original bearers of this haplogroup spoke a language predating all the above and in most cases unrelated to any of those families. The genetic lineage of a population, exceeds the life-time of a language. The vast majority of populations that once spoke a dead language did not die out, but rather shifted to other languages. While the current Greek speaking Cretans of the Lasithi plateau are genetically identical to their Minoan ancestors, the Minoan language is long gone along with any unknown to us related languages. On the reverse again, Saami people, despite having parallels with Siberian peoples in mythology, dermatoglyphics and some cultural features, show almost no genetic relations to Siberian populations. The examples are so many, ranging from the notorious “Hungarian case” to the current language situation in the Americas. We can practically go on forever!

Nevertheless, all the examples above do not prohibit a relation between languages and genes. Significant contributions from linguistic-genetic collaboration are possible. Territories sparsely inhabited can be settled by a large number of newcomers. Although this does not happen too often, a group of people may come to uninhabited territories and nobody else comes there after them. Such events occurred way back in human history, while their frequency was reduced after the adoption of an agricultural lifestyle which in turn lead to permanent settlement and population growth.

One thing is certain and that is the fact that both linguistics and genetics will continue to intrigue people. They are going to talk about it and spread their interpretation and understanding, even when they do not master any of these sciences.

Further reading/listening

Cavalli-Sforza, Luigi Luca, Eric Minch, and J. L. Mountain. "Coevolution of genes and languages revisited." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 89.12 (1992): 5620-5624.

Campbell, Lyle. "Do Languages and Genes Correlate?." Language Dynamics and Change 5.2 (2015): 202-226.

Burlak, Svetlana. "Languages, DNA, relationship and contacts." Вестник Российского государственного гуманитарного университета 5 (106) (2013).

Klein W., “Language and Genetics”, Research Perspectives of the Max Planck Society (2010)

Mallory J.P., "Indo-European Dispersals and the Eurasian Steppe", Penn Museum Silk Road Symposium, March 2011, retrieved January 5 2017

Language and genes

Can you guess the mother tongue of these people and the language their ancestors were speaking 80 generations back?

Language and genes

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