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The Evolution of Linguistic Diversity

Nettle, Daniel; (1996) The Evolution of Linguistic Diversity. Doctoral thesis (Ph.D), UCL (University College London). Green open access

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Abstract

This thesis examines the causes and consequences of diversity in human language. It is divided into three sections, each of which addresses a different aspect of the topic. The first section uses computer simulations to examine various mechanisms which may produce diversity in language: imperfect learning, geographical isolation, selection on the basis of social affiliation, and functional selection amongst linguistic variants. It is concluded that social and functional selection by speakers provide the main motive forces for the divergence of languages. The second section examines the factors influencing the geographical distribution of languages in the world. By far the most important is the ecological regime in which people live. Seasonal climates produce large ethnolinguistic groups because people form large networks of exchange to mitigate the subsistence risk to which they are exposed. Non-seasonal, equatorial climates such as those of Papua New Guinea and Zaire produce numerous small ethnolinguistic groups, as reliable self- sufficiency is more easily achieved. The relationship between linguistic diversity and the modern economy is also investigated. Some support is found for the Fishman-Pool hypothesis which states that linguistic diversity is negatively related to economic well-being. The third section deals with diversity in linguistic structure, concentrating on the sound system. It is argued that the size of the phonological inventory and the vowel/consonant ratio are the result of trade-offs between competing articulatory and perceptual motivations. This hypothesis is supported by an analysis of word-length in twelve West African languages. It is further hypothesised that different societal contexts might favour different balances between the two motivations, with languages used over a wide area tending towards simple inventories and long words. This prediction is borne out for West Africa, though it does not seem to hold at a global level.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Qualification: Ph.D
Title: The Evolution of Linguistic Diversity
Open access status: An open access version is available from UCL Discovery
Language: English
Additional information: Thesis digitised by ProQuest.
Keywords: Language, literature and linguistics; Language diversity
URI: https://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/10104929
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