People across the world describe their thoughts and emotions, share experiences and spread ideas through the use of thousands of distinct languages. These languages form a fundamental part of our humanity. They determine whom we communicate with and how we express ourselves.
Despite continually mapping the distribution of languages across the world, scientists have few clear answers about what caused the emergence of thousands of languages. Collectively, human beings speak more than 7,000 distinct languages, and these languages are not uniformly distributed across the planet. For example, far more languages are spoken in tropical regions than in temperate areas.
But why are there so many languages spoken in some places and so few in others?
Our research team has been tackling this longstanding question by exploring language diversity patterns on the continent of North America. Prior to European contact, North America was home to speakers of around 400 languages, unevenly spread across the landscape. Some places, such as the West Coast from present-day Vancouver to southern California, had far more languages; other areas, such as northern Canada and the Mississippi delta region, appear to have had fewer languages. We drew on methods from ecology originally developed to study patterns of species diversity to investigate these patterns of language diversity.
Read more: PRI