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Journal Article

Evolutionary dynamics in the dispersal of sign languages


List,  Johann-Mattis       
Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, Max Planck Society;

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Power, J. M., Grimm, G. W., & List, J.-M. (2020). Evolutionary dynamics in the dispersal of sign languages. Royal Society Open Science, 7(1). doi:10.1098/rsos.191100.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/21.11116/0000-0007-5CEE-7
The evolution of spoken languages has been studied since the mid-nineteenth century using traditional historical comparative methods and, more recently, computational phylogenetic methods. By contrast, evolutionary processes resulting in the diversity of contemporary sign languages (SLs) have received much less attention, and scholars have been largely unsuccessful in grouping SLs into monophyletic language families using traditional methods. To date, no published studies have attempted to use language data to infer relationships among SLs on a large scale. Here, we report the results of a phylogenetic analysis of 40 contemporary and 36 historical SL manual alphabets coded for morphological similarity. Our results support grouping SLs in the sample into six main European lineages, with three larger groups of Austrian, British and French origin, as well as three smaller groups centring around Russian, Spanish and Swedish. The British and Swedish lineages support current knowledge of relationships among SLs based on extra-linguistic historical sources. With respect to other lineages, our results diverge from current hypotheses by indicating (i) independent evolution of Austrian, French and Spanish from Spanish sources; (ii) an internal Danish subgroup within the Austrian lineage; and (iii) evolution of Russian from Austrian sources.