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Language, Ecology, and Evolution: Do Languages Adapt to Their Environment?

August 25, 2022 at 6:00 pm - 8:00 pm EDT

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Join linguists Colin Gorrie and Damian Romero to explore a controversial question: Do languages evolve to match the environment where they’re spoken? 

Do languages spoken in one environment work the same way as languages spoken in another environment? Does the climate a language is spoken in determine how many terms it uses for things like “snow” and “ice”? Does the dry air of the desert make the complex tone patterns, such as those found in Chinese, more difficult to hear? Do languages become grammatically simpler as more people speak them? Does the higher density of the air at sea level make the kinds of sounds found in the languages of the high Andes harder to pronounce? What might the languages of moon colonists look like, given their environment?

Each of these environmental effects (and more!) have been proposed by researchers studying linguistic diversity. But are they real? Or are they illusions brought about by the fact that languages near each other tend to be related, and related languages tend to work in the same way?

In this salon, we’ll explore this controversial question, which will take us on a journey not only all over the world, but also through the realm of the philosophy of science. Do cultures evolve? Is there such a thing as a science of history? Can we really say that some languages are fitter than others?


The Atlantic. Do High Altitudes Shape Languages? (2013)


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August 25, 2022
6:00 pm - 8:00 pm EDT
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