Have you ever considered the lexical distance among European languages?

Did you know that English is a primary member of the Germanic group of languages within the Indo-European family? However, 75% of English vocabulary hails from Latin and French. That’s why English and French are fairly close to one another in lexical terms than, say, French and Romanian.

But, English is still considered a Germanic language since 80% of the vocabulary originates from Germanic sources. What’s more, English syntax is still recognized as Germanic.

Wikipedia defines linguist distance as how different a dialect or language is from another. At present, there is no uniform way of quantifying the linguistic distance between languages, but, the concept can be used in a range of linguistic situations, including:

  • Historical linguistics
  • Learning new languages
  • The effects of language differences on trade
  • Language-based conflicts

What’s the point of studying linguistic distance? It can help to identify a population’s genetic make-up, in turn aiding medical research. But, is there really a correlation? Studies say there is.

A Study About Linguistic and Genetic Diversity

Researchers at the University of York have discovered that there is a connection between linguistic and genetic diversity. Their findings conclude that people in Europe who speak different languages are a lot more likely to have differing genetic make-ups.

The study was led by Professor Giuseppe Longobardi and was conducted in accordance with the Department of Language and Linguistic Science and collaborated with both linguists and geneticists at the Italian University of Reggio Emillia and the University of Ferrara and Modena. The study found that language serves as a rather accurate predictor of genetic differences than the population’s geographical distribution.

Professor Longobardi’s Findings

Professor Longobardi found that linguistic differences tend to correspond to genetic differences in certain populations. For example, if a population speaks Spanish, and another population speaks Slovak, there is some linguistic diversity. With that, the degree of genetic diversity can be measured.

For example, the Spanish, Italians, and French, speak very similar languages. Does this mean that they are similar to each other genetically? Or, is it really true that the Japanese and a population found in Sub Saharan Africa are that different in terms of genetics and language? To some extent, and based on the findings of the study, the answer is yes.

But, the professor has stated that there are a few exceptions. For instance, in Europe, the Hungarians are genetically similar to the Germanic and Slavic populations. This is an example where the populations of central Europe seemed to pick up a new language which was then carried over to Hungary by a small selection of conquerors.

Apart from the few exceptions, though, it would seem that the distribution of languages, as well the genetic structure of European populations, does correspond to one another.

Interestingly, the study has suggested that the migrating populations took both their genes and their language from one population to the next, and not just a lax cultural diffusion of linguistic features.

The study involved 15 European languages but since then, researchers seem to be turning their attention to other languages, extending their research to a global scale in the hope that is could help scientists identify how and when Indo-European languages came into Europe. In turn, this research can help geneticists later on.

The premise is this: identifying the ancestry of a population based just on the language they speak can greatly help with identifying their genetic make-up. In turn, this could see massive breakthroughs in medical research.



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