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Towards a mechanistic understanding of linguistic diversity

Gavin, M., Botero, C. A., Bowern, C., Colwell, R. K., Dunn, M., Dunn, R. R., Gray, R. D., Kirby, K. R., McCarter, J., Powell, A., Rangel, T. F., Steppe, J. R., Trautwein, M., Verdolin, J. L., & Yanega, G. (2013). Towards a mechanistic understanding of linguistic diversity. Bioscience, 63, 524-535. doi:10.1525/bio.2013.63.7.6.
Our species displays remarkable linguistic diversity. While the uneven distribution of this diversity demands explanation, the drivers of these patterns have not been conclusively determined. We address this issue in two steps. First, we review previous empirical studies that have suggested environmental, geographical, and socio-cultural drivers of linguistic diversification. However, contradictory results and methodological variation make it difficult to draw general conclusions. Second, we outline a program for future research. We suggest that future analyses should account for interactions among causal factors, lack of spatial and phylogenetic independence of data, and transitory patterns. Recent analytical advances in biogeography and evolutionary biology, such as simulation modeling of diversity patterns, hold promise for testing four key mechanisms of language diversification proposed here: neutral change, population movement, contact, and selection. Future modeling approaches should also evaluate how the outcomes of these processes are influenced by demography, environmental heterogeneity, and time.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

The institute is situated on the campus of the Radboud University. We participate in the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behaviour, and have particularly close ties to that institute's Centre for Cognitive Neuroimaging. We also participate in the Centre for Language Studies. A joint graduate school, the IMPRS in Language Sciences, links the Donders Institute, the CLS and the MPI.



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