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Journal Article

Are languages really independent from genes? If not, what would a genetic bias affecting language diversity look like?


Dediu,  Dan
Language and Genetics Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, External Organizations;

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Dediu, D. (2011). Are languages really independent from genes? If not, what would a genetic bias affecting language diversity look like? Human Biology, 83, 279-296. doi:10.3378/027.083.0208.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-0012-68F0-D
It is generally accepted that the relationship between human genes
and language is very complex and multifaceted. This has its roots in the
“regular” complexity governing the interplay among genes and between genes
and environment for most phenotypes, but with the added layer of supraontogenetic
and supra-individual processes defining culture. At the coarsest
level, focusing on the species, it is clear that human-specific—but not necessarily
faculty-specific—genetic factors subtend our capacity for language and a
currently very productive research program is aiming at uncovering them. At the
other end of the spectrum, it is uncontroversial that individual-level variations in
different aspects related to speech and language have an important genetic
component and their discovery and detailed characterization have already started
to revolutionize the way we think about human nature. However, at the
intermediate, glossogenetic/population level, the relationship becomes controversial,
partly due to deeply ingrained beliefs about language acquisition and
universality and partly because of confusions with a different type of genelanguages
correlation due to shared history. Nevertheless, conceptual, mathematical
and computational models—and, recently, experimental evidence from
artificial languages and songbirds—have repeatedly shown that genetic biases
affecting the acquisition or processing of aspects of language and speech can be
amplified by population-level intergenerational cultural processes and made
manifest either as fixed “universal” properties of language or as structured
linguistic diversity. Here, I review several such models as well as the recently
proposed case of a causal relationship between the distribution of tone languages
and two genes related to brain growth and development, ASPM and Microcephalin,
and I discuss the relevance of such genetic biasing for language
evolution, change, and diversity.