Zurich – How are language and genetics related in human history? A study by the University of Zurich and the Max Planck Institute linked relevant data for the first time using a global database. It shows that there are many similarities in linguistic and genetic evolution, but there are also deviations of 20 percent worldwide, for example in Malta, Hungary or Namibia.
More than 7,000 languages are spoken all over the world and passed down from generation to generation – much like a biological trait. But did language and genes evolve in parallel over thousands of years, as Charles Darwin originally predicted? For the first time, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Zurich, together with the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, has investigated this on a global scale. Dubbed GeLaTo (Genes and Languages Together), the researchers have compiled a database of genetic and linguistic information on 4,000 individuals who speak 295 languages and represent 397 genetic combinations.
Every fifth relationship between genes and language indicates a language switch
In their study, they examined how closely the linguistic and genetic histories of these populations matched. People who speak related languages are also often genetically related, but not always. “We focused on those cases where the two models differ and examined how often and where this happens,” says study leader and UZH geneticist Chiara Barbieri, who conducted the study as a postdoctoral researcher at the Max Planck Institute with other researchers who started the study.
Conclusion: every fifth genetic and language relationship worldwide is a language switch. This gives clues to the history of mankind. “Once we know where language shifts took place, we can reconstruct the history of how languages and populations spread around the world much better than before,” says Baltazar Bickel, director of the National Center for Competence in Research (NCCR). ) developed language and one of the study’s senior authors.
Switch to the local language
In most cases, populations switch to the language of neighboring populations that are genetically different. For example, some peoples on the tropical eastern slope of the Andes speak the Quechua language that is usually spoken by people with a high-altitude genetic profile. Regarding the Bantu, the Damara of Namibia communicates in the local Kho language. In the rainforests of Central Africa, hunter-gatherers use the dominant Bantu languages without being genetically descended from these neighboring populations.
There are also typical cases of immigrants tending to adopt a local language: for example, the Jewish population of Georgia expresses itself in a South Caucasian language, the Cochin language of India in a Dravidian language. Malta reflects the island’s intercontinental history: the population is very similar to Sicilian, but speaks an Afro-Asiatic language with influences from various Turkic and Indo-European languages.
Preserve your language identity
“Obviously, it is not difficult to give up your language, also for practical reasons,” says senior author Kentaro Shimizu of the University Research Center (URPP) “Evolution in Action: From Genome to Ecosystem.” On the other hand, it is rare for people to retain their original term despite genetic assimilation. “The Hungarians, for example, have adapted genetically to their immediate environment. However, their language remains related to the languages of Siberia.”
In this way, Hungarian speakers maintain a cultural difference in the middle of the Indo-European language family, which is widespread in Europe and parts of Asia and includes French, German, Hindi, Persian, Greek, and many others. Indo-Europeans are not only well scientifically researched, but also have particularly high genetic and linguistic compatibility. “So far, this has given the impression that similarities between genes and languages are the norm – but this is not reflected in our data,” Chiara Barbieri concludes. She says that future global data should be taken into account. (University of Zurich/Master/ps)
Chiara Barbieri and others. A global analysis of matches and mismatches between human genetic and linguistic history. PNAS November 21, 2022. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2122084119