Evolution within a language: Environmental differences contribute to divergence of dialect groups

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Background: The processes leading to the diversity of over 7000 present-day languages have been the subject of scholarly interest for centuries. Several factors have been suggested to contribute to the spatial segregation of speaker populations and the subsequent linguistic divergence. However, their formal testing and the quantification of their relative roles is still missing. We focussed here on the early stages of the linguistic divergence process, that is, the divergence of dialects, with a special focus on the ecological settings of the speaker populations. We adopted conceptual and statistical approaches from biological microevolution and parallelled intra-lingual variation with genetic variation within a species. We modelled the roles of geographical distance, differences in environmental and cultural conditions and in administrative history on linguistic divergence at two different levels: between municipal dialects (cf. in biology, between individuals) and between dialect groups (cf. in biology, between populations). Results: We found that geographical distance and administrative history were important in separating municipal dialects. However, environmental and cultural differences contributed markedly to the divergence of dialect groups. In biology, increase in genetic differences between populations together with environmental differences may suggest genetic differentiation of populations through adaptation to the local environment. However, our interpretation of this result is not that language itself adapts to the environment. Instead, it is based on Homo sapiens being affected by its environment, and its capability to adapt culturally to various environmental conditions. The differences in cultural adaptations arising from environmental heterogeneity could have acted as nonphysical barriers and limited the contacts and communication between groups. As a result, linguistic differentiation may emerge over time in those speaker populations which are, at least partially, separated. Conclusions: Given that the dialects of isolated speaker populations may eventually evolve into different languages, our result suggests that cultural adaptation to local environment and the associated isolation of speaker populations have contributed to the emergence of the global patterns of linguistic diversity.


  • Terhi Honkola
  • Kalle Ruokolainen
  • Kaj J.J. Syrjänen
  • Unni Päivä Leino
  • Ilpo Tammi
  • Niklas Wahlberg
  • Outi Vesakoski
Enheter & grupper
Externa organisationer
  • University of Turku
  • University of Tampere
  • Council of Tampere Region

Ämnesklassifikation (UKÄ) – OBLIGATORISK

  • Jämförande språkvetenskap och lingvistik


TidskriftBMC Evolutionary Biology
StatusPublished - 2018 sep 3
Peer review utfördJa