Some people study languages for practical purposes, like hunting for a job abroad, pursuing an international love story or simply travelling to exotic lands. Languages are also studied because they work as gates to plunge into respective literatures and cultures. Some people look at the several different linguistic varieties as manifestations of the human faculty of language. These people, “glottophiles”, translators, or linguists, all would agree that a language, when used as a tool, or a system, or a computational model, or a neuronal device, exists if and only if the speakers exist or existed.
This means that the evolution and distribution of languages share many fundamental steps with the evolution and distribution of human populations. Through use of abstraction, one can argue that the history and the spread of a language in time and space overlap with the history and the spread of the respective speakers’ community. It might seem to be a trivial correspondence. However, if only one thinks of how many ethnic groups speak English natively nowaday, the issue arises. Furthermore, if one considers the languages that disappeared, whose speakers’ genes survived, then the issue becomes intriguing and fundamental.
Significantly, a correspondence between languages and populations was mentioned by Darwin , who supposed that: «If we possessed a perfect pedigree of mankind, a genealogical arrangement of the races of man would afford the best classification of the various languages now spoken throughout the world».
In the last few decades, on one hand, geneticists (in particular from Cavalli-Sforza to Barbujani) tried to pursue this intuition by comparing the classification of genetic features with larger linguistic families, which produced interesting but conflicting results, and was generally not accepted by linguists.
Linguists themselves, on the other hand, had never faced such an issue experimentally, until a few years ago, when a very novel method of linguistic comparison (Parametric Comparison Method, PCM, Longobardi and Guardiano 2009 ) was proposed. PCM’s novelty is that it is probabilistic and universally valid, being applicable to every human language. It is based on the recent findings of theoretical linguistics, where cross-linguistic or intra-linguistic variation can be reduced to differences among syntactic features which are assumed to be discrete and universal “parameters” which correspond to genetic characteristics.
The comparison between syntactic features is not at all arbitrary. Since the Sixties, thanks to Chomsky’s works, syntax is assumed to be at the core of human language by many linguists. The word order and the connections between constituents represent the characteristics that make the human language unique.
The taxonomies of languages based on PCM can easily be compared to genetic classifications of respective populations.
Today a research project aimed to reveal the relations between families of languages and human populations exists. It is led by an Italian linguist, Giuseppe Longobardi , and involves geneticists, anthropologists, and a group of young researchers. Also, and maybe especially, scientific research is made of unfulfilled dreams waiting to be realized. Darwin’s unrealized last dream was a question sent to posterity about the truth of humankind.
‘Dream’ ends up being synonymous with ‘challenge’ in our case. This challenge is an ongoing research project involving genetics and linguistics.
Written and translated by Giuseppina Silvestri.
1 Charles Darwin, 1957. The Origin of Species.
2 Giuseppe Longobardi, Cristina Guardiano, 2009. Evidence for Syntax as a Signal of Historical Relatedness. In «Lingua», vol. 119,11, pp. 1679-1706.
3 Festival dell scienza, Genova, 2012: Barbujani, Longobardi, Pettener