The Weekly Newsletter of MIT Linguistics

LingLunch: Robert Ladd

Robert Ladd
University of Edinburgh
“Correlations between Interpopulation Differences in Two Human Genes (ASPM and Microcephalin) and the Distribution of Lexical and/or Grammatical Tone.”

WHEN: April 17, 12:30-1:45
WHERE: 32-D461


We consider the relation between allele frequencies and linguistic typological features. Specifically, we focus on the derived haplogroups of the brain growth and development-related genes ASPM and Microcephalin, which show signs of natural selection and a marked geographic structure, and on linguistic tone, the use of voice pitch to convey lexical or grammatical distinctions. We hypothesize that there is a relationship between the population frequency of these two alleles and the presence of linguistic tone and test this hypothesis relative to a large database (983 alleles and 26 linguistic features in 49 populations), showing that it is not due to the usual explanatory factors represented by geography and history. The relationship between genetic and linguistic diversity in this case may be causal: certain alleles can bias language acquisition or processing and thereby influence the trajectory of language change through iterated cultural transmission.