Abteilung Sprach- und Kulturevolution

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RESEARCH OVERVIEW

The Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution aims to bridge the gap between the humanities and the natural sciences. We bring together linguists, computer scientists, biologists and social scientists. Together we apply computational methods from the natural sciences while still utilising the insights that only come from maintaining close contact with the primary linguistic and cultural data. Our focus is on answering big picture questions about linguistic and cultural history. We tackle these questions by developing novel language documentation methods, global linguistic and cultural databases, and analyses using evolutionary theories and methods.

 

RESEARCH AREAS

THE EVOLUTION OF LINGUISTIC DIVERSITY

Three fundamental facts about language demand explanation:

  • Why are there approximately 7000 languages spoken today?
  • Why is their distribution across the globe so uneven?
  • Why do they differ so much?

We address these questions with a combination of linguistic databases (Glottobank, COBL, Sound Comparisons, TransNewGuinea.org, Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database, Tsammalex, Glottolog, Dictionaria) , computational methods (CALC), and carefully targeted fieldwork (Vanuatu Languages and Lifeways Project).

Projects exploring linguistic diversity:

Glottobank is an international research consortium established to document and understand the world’s linguistic diversity. We are developing methods to use this data to make inferences about human prehistory, relationships between languages and processes of language change.

CoBL is a new breed of databases for exploring how languages within a family relate to each other in Cognacy in Basic Lexicon. The CoBL framework and online database explorer are tailored to serve both qualitative and quantitative/phylogenetic research purposes. CoBL-IE already covers Indo-European, but the model is extendable to any language family.

Sound Comparisons is a database and website structure for exploring diversity in phonetics across language families from around the world. Instantaneously compare and search among over 500 language varieties recorded in our fieldwork campaigns in Europe, South America and the Pacific.

TransNewGuinea.org is a database of the languages of New Guinea. Vanishingly little is known about these languages' history, and this project aims to reveal the prehistory of New Guinea using the linguistic comparative method combined with novel computational phylogenetic methods.

CALC Computer-Assisted Language Comparison (CALC) While purely computational approaches are common today, the ERC-funded research project focuses on the communication between classical and computational linguists, developing interfaces that allow historical linguists to produce their data in machine-readable formats while at the same time presenting the results of computational analyses in a transparent and human-readable way.

Vanuatu Languages & Lifeways - Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 80 islands in the south Pacific, is the most linguistically diverse nation per capita on earth, with a huge variety of cultural traditions and life-ways. How has this diversity evolved? How is it maintained? And what are its prospects for the future? We combine linguistics, anthropology, genetics and other disciplinary approaches to understand the historical and contemporary processes generating both diversity and convergence in the languages and life-ways of ni-Vanuatu communities. More broadly, we take a synthetic theoretical and empirical approach to help answer fundamental questions in cultural and linguistic evolution.

Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database - The Austronesian Basic Vocabulary Database provides a comprehensive comparative source of lexical data for a large number of Pacific languages. It is one of the world’s largest cross-linguistic databases with wordlists for more than 1,500 languages in the Asia-Pacific region.

Tsammalex is a multilingual lexical database on plants and animals including linguistic, anthropological and biological information as well as images. It has been set up as a resource for linguists, anthropologists and other researchers, language planners and speech communities interested in the conservation of their biological knowledge. Lexical and biological data can be accessed directly or filtered for specific languages or geographical regions, with varying details.

Glottolog is a comprehensive catalogue of the world’s languages, language families and dialects (languoids). It assigns stable identifiers to all languoids, shows their location and provides links to other resources on the world’s languages. In addition, it gives numerous bibliographical references on all languages. Glottolog is being constantly updated with the help of the worldwide community of linguists.

Dictionaria is an open-access journal that publishes high-quality dictionaries of languages from around the world, especially languages that do not have a large number of speakers. The dictionaries are published not in the traditional linear form, but as electronic databases that can be easily searched, linked and exported.

 


THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURAL DIVERSITY

Recent decades have seen a blossoming of multidisciplinary research on human culture and cultural change from an evolutionary perspective. Major questions for the field include:

  • How and why does cultural diversity emerge?
  • What processes maintain and stabilise cultural variability, boundaries and identities?
  • What causes cultural diversity to be lost?

We bring together researchers from the social and biological sciences to work on fundamental questions in cultural evolution at both the macro and the micro level. We document cultural diversity across world regions and throughout human history using both primary and secondary data sources. Our projects focus on demographic and anthropological data collection, and on building large-scale quantitative cross-cultural databases of historic and contemporary cultures. We apply a wide range of computational and statistical methods with comparative cultural data to test hypotheses about cultural evolution, and combine these with contemporary and historical ethnographic work. Please click the links below to see more about our research on the evolution of religion, the Vanuatu Languages and Lifeways project, and the D-Place database of world cultures.

Projects exploring cultural diversity:

Cultural evolution of religion – we combine cross-cultural data with computational methods to test theories about the evolution of supernatural beliefs and practices. Our recent research has focused on understanding how features of religion have co-evolved with the structure of human social systems and the physical environments that we live in.

Vanuatu Languages & Lifeways - Vanuatu, an archipelago of about 80 islands in the south Pacific, is the most linguistically diverse nation per capita on earth, with a huge variety of cultural traditions and life-ways. How has this diversity evolved? How is it maintained? And what are its prospects for the future? We combine linguistics, anthropology, genetics and other disciplinary approaches to understand the historical and contemporary processes generating both diversity and convergence in the languages and life-ways of ni-Vanuatu communities. More broadly, we take a synthetic theoretical and empirical approach to help answer fundamental questions in cultural and linguistic evolution.

The Database of Places, Languages, Culture and Environment (D-PLACE) systematically brings together cultural, linguistic, environmental and geographic information for over 1400 preindustrial societies. By linking societies to their geographic locations and through their shared linguistic ancestry, we employ computational methods to investigate the roles of environment, spatial proximity and cultural ancestry in observable patterns of cross-cultural diversity across world regions.

 


GENES, LANGUAGE, CULTURE

Genetics has revolutionised our understanding of the human past, uncovering the details of our evolution as well as the complexities of our more recent history. By analysing genetic data alongside cultural and linguistic data, we address the following broad research questions:

  • How or where do genetic histories match those from archaeology and historical linguistics?
  • What kind of cultural processes create or maintain genetic diversity?
  • How can we best integrate genetic inferences with those from other historical sciences?

We develop and apply a range of methods from across population genetics, cultural evolution and gene-culture coevolution to build unified models of human history. We integrate modern DNA data from targeted fieldwork projects in Mali, Peru and Vanuatu, ancient DNA data generated with collaborators in the Department of Archaeogenetics, and linguistic and cultural data from colleagues in the Department of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution.

Please click the links below for more on our research on: gene-culture coevolution, genomic insights into Inca expansions and the diffusion of Quechua languages, and the genetic identity of the Bangande people, "The Secret Ones".

Projects exploring Genes, Language, Culture

Gene-culture coevolution - Our group works on the interactions between human genetic and cultural evolutionary systems, integrating methods and data from population genetics, anthropology, archaeology, historical linguistics and quantitative history. Gene-culture coevolution is the comprehensive study of human evolutionary history, drawing from a range of disciplines to infer the uniquely human processes underlying the distribution of modern or ancient genetic and cultural variation. We develop simulation and statistical inference methods, including geographic and palaeoenvironmental modeling, to create a unified framework for human demographic inference.

A Cross-Disciplinary Prehistory of South America - Archaeology, genetics and linguistics all open different, complementary windows on our past. This project runs an ongoing series of explicitly cross-disciplinary symposia (and resulting publications), in an innovative format to foster understanding and interaction between specialists from across the disciplines and around the world. The goal is to converge on a more coherent and holistic prehistory of South America, not least the 'pristine' civilisation of the Andes.

Genomic insights into Inca expansions and the spread of Quechua languages - The Inca Empire was one major force that turned Quechua into the largest surviving language family of the native Americas. But other, earlier and later empires also spread Quechua. And languages can spread not just by migrations but also by cultural dominance. Always guided by the linguistic, archaeological and historical records, this project collects and analyses new human genetic data from the Andes, to test where and how the Incas spread Quechua.

The Genetic Identity of the Bangande People: "The Secret Ones" - This project aims at studying the genetic structure of the Bangande people and the surrounding Dogon to learn more about their unique history and relationships with other African populations. This interdisciplinary research has the potential for revealing African demographic history and interaction between genes and languages.

GeLaTo: Genes and Languages Together - This project focuses on the matches and mismatches between linguistic and genetic variation. To explore this parallel, we assemble a new genetic databases to be matched with relevant qualitative and quantitative linguistic and cultural information.

 


COGNITIVE EVOLUTION

Our research centers on the evolution of cognition by using the comparative approach. Animal minds can inform us about the factors driving the evolution of cognitive abilities.

Three complementary research groups focus on specific cognitive domains:

DogStudies addresses domestication and dog-human interactions. In this project we investigate the cognitive skills of family and working dogs. Due to their long domestication history, dogs represent an interesting model for investigating different questions regarding the evolution of cognitive abilities.

Evolution of Communication - The research of this group centers on the evolutionary and developmental trajectories of communicative skills. We focus on three model systems: (1) pre-linguistic human children, (2) closely related species (humans, great apes), and (3) species living in comparable social settings or showing comparable social matrices.

Grammar of Tools examines tool-use and language in New Caledonian crows. This project explores the co-evolution of language and culture through "grammar of action" in a tool-making bird. It documents the grammatical structure of tool manufacture in New Caledonian crows.


 
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