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Meeting Darwin's last challenge: toward a global tree of human languages and genes (LanGeLin)

ERC Advanced Grant project, 2012-2017

Project overview

LanGeLin (Language and Gene Lineages) is the acronym for the ERC-funded research project 'Meeting Darwin’s last challenge: toward a global tree of human languages and genes' coordinated by Professor Giuseppe Longobardi, PI, running from December 2012 to November 2017. The project addresses one question, formulated by Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species, namely whether the cultural transmission and differentiation of languages over the period of human history matches the biological transmission and differentiation of the genetic characters which define the populations of the world. The project is by definition interdisciplinary, and the work of the linguistic researchers in York is complemented by the participation of population geneticists and molecular anthropologists based at the University of Ferrara and the University of Bologna-Alma Mater Studiorum

Serious testing of Darwin’s positive expectation with respect to this question, though also highly relevant for prehistoric archaeology and palaeoanthropology, has rarely and rather been addressed to date, with no clear results. The attempts have been undermined particularly by the weakness of large-scale language taxonomies. The biological tools for population classification have seen substantial progress, following L. Cavalli Sforza’s pioneering suggestions in the 1950s and 1960s, leading to contemporary molecular and now genomic anthropology; in contrast only scarce and highly controversial proposals have emerged about the methods for classifying distant languages and reconstructing chronologically deep families.

The LanGeLin linguists will address these issues not by means of traditional lexical methods (word comparison), but through a radically new comparative method (Longobardi and Guardiano 2009) based entirely on grammatical evidence, informed by recent theoretical advances in formal linguistics and typological data coverage. This Parametric Comparison Method has been successfully tested on European languages, ensuring unprecedented standards of testability and replicability, can measure linguistic distances between even remote populations.

Through the use of shared statistical and computational tools, LanGeLin aims to build up comparable phylogenetic trees of strategically chosen languages and populations, and therefore to test in the strongest possible way Darwin’s expectation about their eventual congruity, both on local and global scales.

  • Longobardi, Giuseppe and Cristina Guardiano. 2009. Evidence for Syntax as a Signal of Historical Relatedness. Lingua 119, 1679-1706.

Full project description

The team

Team members are in York, Ferrara and Bologna. The core York group is:

Project events