Human genes diverged from tongues

Does the evolution of languages ​​repeat the evolution of humans as a species? At first glance, it seems that yes, and many studies confirm this. It’s not that a particular language is transmitted genetically. Only the ability to speak and language is transmitted, which is common to all people, but a specific language, be it Russian, English or Chinese, is not encoded in any genes. But language, like genes, is passed on to us from our parents. Well, strictly speaking, not only from parents, but also from grandparents, older brothers and sisters, and in general all the people who surround us.

A child learns a language that has been spoken among his people for hundreds of years. Let’s imagine that a part of this people once left for a new territory in ancient times, and over time, some innovations began to appear in the language of the settlers. And even if after a long time both parts of the once united people can no longer immediately understand each other – they will have to learn a foreign language, linguists will still be able to determine that the two languages ​​are related to each other. And in exactly the same way, geneticists, by comparing the variants of genes in two peoples, will find a genetic relationship between them.

On the other hand, the coincidences between the biological (genetic) evolution of human populations and the evolution of languages ​​have usually been studied using the example of the Indo-European languages. Among their speakers, linguo-genetic parallels are indeed very clearly visible: how close two peoples are genetically usually corresponds to how close their languages ​​are.

But besides the Indo-European languages, there are others, and a lot. Staff at the University of Zurich, Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology Max Planck SocietiesHarvard University and other scientific centers decided to check how much the genetic and linguistic history of people repeat each other around the world.

For analysis, we took the genomic data of more than 4,000 people, among whom were native speakers of almost 300 languages. In general, most of the ethnic groups speaking the languages ​​of the same language family were close genetically too. However, in 20% of cases, genetically close peoples spoke languages ​​that were not close at all. These 20% mismatches are found all over the world, although perhaps the most famous example here is the Hungarians: genetically they may have mixed well with their European neighbors, but they continue to speak their Hungarian language, which belongs to the Uralic language family.


Discrepancies between the linguistic and biological (genetic) history of people. The genetic links of different peoples are shown by the branches of the tree, the language families are shown by colored lines. (Illustration: Chiara Barbieri et al., PNAS, 2022)

Even more often there are cases when linguistic proximity does not mean genetic proximity. For example, once a certain nation adopted the language of its neighbors, but the genetic mixing between them was much slower than the linguistic one. Linguistic and genetic differences do not always coincide in time, which is understandable – after all, changes in the language and changes in the genetics of the population occur under the influence of different factors (although the interconnection of these factors can also take place). Among the peoples of the Indo-European languages, linguistic and genetic coincidences are indeed the most visible, but it is hardly worth deriving any general “linguogenetic law” from the Indo-European coincidences to describe the universal connection between languages ​​and genes throughout the world.

The research results are published in an article in PNAS.


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