Quantitative methods demonstrate that environment alone is an insufficient predictor of present-day language distributions in New Guinea
Journal article, Peer reviewed
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Original versionPLoS ONE 15(10): e0239359. 10.1371/journal.pone.0239359
Environmental parameters constrain the distributions of plant and animal species. A key question is to what extent does environment influence human behavior. Decreasing linguistic diversity from the equator towards the poles suggests that ecological factors influence linguistic geography. However, attempts to quantify the role of environmental factors in shaping linguistic diversity remain inconclusive. To this end, we apply Ecological Niche Modelling methods to present-day language diversity in New Guinea. We define an Eco-Linguistic Niche (ELN) as the range of environmental conditions present in the territory of a population speaking a specific language or group of languages characterized by common language traits. In order to reconstruct the ELNs, we used Papuan and Austronesian language groups, transformed their geographical distributions into occurrence data, assembled available environmental data for New Guinea, and applied predictive architectures developed in the field of ecology to these data. We find no clear relationship between linguistic diversity and ELNs. This is particularly true when linguistic diversity is examined at the level of language groups. Language groups are variably dependent on environment and generally share their ELN with other language groups. This variability suggests that population dynamics, migration, linguistic drift, and socio-cultural mechanisms must be taken into consideration in order to better understand the myriad factors that shape language diversity.