Explaining Californian language diversity

A recent paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, summarized in a Los Angeles Times news article, argues that there is a strong correlation between the linguistic diversity and ecological diversity of various parts of prehistoric California.   Using satellite images of plant growth in different areas of the state and comparing it with known or hypothesized distributions of linguistic groups, the authors, Brian Codding and Terry Jones, argue that to understand the density of languages in some areas of the state and the relative sparseness of languages in others, ecological variables such as environmental productivity need to be taken into account.   Specifically, they argue that waves of migration to ecologically attractive areas produce dense areas of language diversity, whereas ecologically unproductive environments are less diverse.

Now, I should say right up front that I’m not convinced by this study or by the media account of it.   I’m not going to go into all the reasons here (yet), because my students and I are going to talk about this study on Tuesday.  I think it embodies some of the more serious problems with studies of the language-culture intersection, and some of the more serious problems with science reporting.   Figuring out how to ask relevant analytical questions about material like this is, I believe, a critical step in advancing not only anthropology in the media, but the science as a whole.

Author: schrisomalis

Anthropologist, Wayne State University. Professional numbers guy. Rare Words: http://phrontistery.info. Blog: http://glossographia.com.

8 thoughts on “Explaining Californian language diversity”

  1. At the risk of coming across as patronizing, is there more to science reporting than summarizing on a deadline? Is there any critical aspect to it at all?

    1. It’s a fair question. In my experience about 15-20% of science reporting is moderately critical and actually does a reasonable job of analyzing issues, but the rest is, as you say, just summarizing on a deadline while using certain literary conventions that give the appearance of criticism. In my opinion, the best science writing in the mainstream press today consists of transplanted bloggers who have moved over – so, for instance, Ben Zimmer in linguistics is excellent. Partly the advantage is that they are subject specialists and so can do the sort of work needed to sort out the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

  2. I’m looking forward to your thoughts about this, as I wasn’t quite satisfied by the reasoning in the article. I don’t know about California in particular, but one thing that comes to mind is how for Amazonia, more and more evidence keeps coming up showing the anthropogenic nature of much of the landscape, and where human activities have for example contributed to ecological diversity by spreading various fruit-bearing plants through the region.

    1. Certainly one of the critical responses in the news article suggests that this principle may not hold true throughout the world, and that other regions may not follow this pattern. But of course you are correct that ecological diversity is not fixed for any region and indeed that human activity inevitably alters ecosystems – even activity by hunter-foragers, who were once thought by anthropologists to leave virtually no ecological footprint but are now seen very differently.

  3. It’s unusual these days to see “Californian” as an adjective in attributive position in US English. I see from your CV that you’re Canadian — is it the norm there?

    1. I don’t think it has anything to do with me being Canadian – my impression is that sub-national level (state or province) attributive adjectives are rare in general, in all varieties of English.

  4. Not meaning to be dim witted, but at one there was always going to be more linguistic diversity in a fertile (or resource rich) than one less well endowed. Not to deny the (oftentimes hithertofore unforseen) benefits of enquiry, the study, at first blush, seems something of a restatement of the principle that anything that attracts people to settle, will result in different types of folk coming, and hence, diversity, incluing linguistic diversity.

    1. I don’t think it’s dim-witted at all – indeed, while the actual study does go into more detail about migration histories, the general argument seems so obvious as to make one wonder why it needs an article in PNAS. Although I note that ‘resource-rich’ is not equivalent to ‘ecologically diverse’ in all circumstances.

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