That the geography of a place is going to have some influence upon the social structure – thus the economy and possibly language – of a place seems obvious enough. What we’d really like to know though is how long do such effects persist? Quite a long time it seems:
Geographical roots of the coevolution of cultural and linguistic traits
Oded Galor, Ömer Özak, Assaf Sarid 20 January 2019
Evidence suggests that ancient regional variations in geographical characteristics contributed to the differential formation of culturaland linguistic traits, which in turn shaped development and inequality in today’s world. This column discusses how geographical characteristics are linked to the emergence of long-term orientation and the future tense, how they shaped distinct gender roles and possibly contributed to the emergence of grammatical gender, and how ecological diversity is connected to the emergence of hierarchical societies and reflected in politeness distinctions in language.
The vast inequality in the wealth of nations has been largely attributed to the persistent effects of unevenly distributed pre-industrial geographical, cultural, institutional, and human characteristics across the globe. In particular, evidence suggests that regional geographical variations in the distant past contributed to the differential formation of cultural traits, with lasting impact on comparative economic development across countries, regions, and ethnic groups (Alesina et al. 2013, Galor and Özak 2016). In light of the coevolution of cultural and linguistic characteristics over the course of human history, it is conceivable that emerging linguistic traits have reinforced the effects of cultural factors on development. Nevertheless, the significance of these joint evolutionary processes and their potential common geographical roots on development and the uneven distribution of wealth across nations has remained obscured.
Our research (Galor et al. 2018) explores the geographical origins of the coevolution of cultural and linguistic traits. We hypothesise and empirically establish that geographical characteristics conducive to the emergence and persistence of fundamental cultural traits triggered the evolution of complementary linguistic traits, which in turn fostered and reinforced the diffusion and intergenerational transmission of these cultural traits over history.
We identify common geographical roots of cultural and linguistic traits, associating long-term orientation to the structure of the future tense, gender bias to the presence of grammatical gender, and hierarchical orientation to the existence of politeness distinctions. The study establishes that:
- Geographical characteristics conducive to a higher natural return to agricultural investment, and thus to the emergence of long-term orientation, contributed to the emergence of the future tense that complements long-term-oriented behaviour.
- Land suitability for agricultural technologies that contributed to a gender differential in productivity has been conducive to the emergence of grammatical gender.
- Ecological diversity, which had been pivotal to specialisation, trade, and thus to the emergence of hierarchical societies, fostered the presence of politeness distinctions.
The proposed hypothesis rests upon the following building blocks.
- Language plays a pivotal role in diffusing knowledge and transmitting values. Thus, emerging linguistic characteristics over human history have conceivably contributed to the diffusion of cultural values, reinforcement of existing cultural traits, and their intergenerational transmission.
- The forces of natural selection across language structures have plausibly generated an evolutionary advantage to linguistic traits that reflect and reinforce the dominating cultural traits.
- Regional differences in geographical characteristics have contributed to the emergence of variations in cultural traits, and have conceivably contributed to the evolution of cross-language variations in complementary linguistic traits.
- Cultural traits reflected in language structures have been persistent across time and space, suggesting that deviations from existing language structures are less likely to occur than deviations from prevailing cultural traits, in light of their adverse effect on communication across individuals.
The coevolution of grammatical gender and gender bias
Linguistic traits that fortify existing gender biases have plausibly emerged and persisted over time in those ancient civilizations characterised by gender division of labour and consequently by gender bias. In particular, geographical characteristics associated with the adoption of agricultural technology that contributed to a gender gap in productivity, and thus to the emergence of distinct gender roles in society (e.g. the suitability of land for the usage of the plough. See Boserup 1970, Pryor 1985, and Alesina et al. 2013), may have fostered the emergence and prevalence of grammatical gender.
Consistent with this view, our empirical analysis establishes that grammatical gender is more prevalent in languages that originated in geographical regions characterised by greater suitability for plough use. The findings also suggest that gender bias is indeed more prevalent in communities whose languages have grammatical gender. Within ethnic groups in each language’s contemporary geographical homeland (i.e. the indigenous regions in which the language was spoken in pre-colonial as well as post-colonial eras), actual plough use appears to be the mediating channel through which suitability of land for plough use affected the presence of grammatical gender.
Future tense and long-term orientation
In ancient societies characterised by long-term orientation, the future tense may have emerged and persisted over time, which in turn reinforced long-term oriented behaviour. In particular, pre-industrial agro-climatic characteristics associated with a higher return to agricultural investment, and therefore to the prevalence of long-term orientation (Galor and Ozak 2016), may have triggered the emergence and prevalence of the long-term oriented structure of the future tense.
Consistent with the view that periphrastic future tense reflects intentional, future-orientated behaviour, our empirical analysis establishes that periphrastic future tense is more prevalent in languages originating in geographical regions characterised by higher potential crop returns and greater long-term orientation. Our analysis also suggests that long-term orientation is indeed more prevalent in communities whose languages are characterised by periphrastic future tense. Moreover, the findings indicate that the intensity of agriculture among ethnic groups in each language’s contemporary geographical homeland appears to be the mediating channel through which the return to agricultural investment has affected the presence of periphrastic future tense.
The coevolution of politeness distinction and hierarchical orientation
Finally, we consider historical societies characterised by hierarchical orientation (e.g. obedience, conformity, and power distance). Linguistic traits that reinforced existing hierarchical structures and cultural norms conceivably emerged and persisted in these stratified societies over a long period of time. In particular, politeness distinctions in pronouns (e.g. the differential use of ‘tú’ and ‘usted’ in Spanish, ‘du’ and ‘Sie’ in German, and ‘tu’ and ‘vous’ in French) may have appeared and endured in hierarchical societies. Thus, we hypothesise that geographical characteristics conducive to the emergence of hierarchical societies, such as ecological diversity (Fenske 2014), contributed to the emergence of politeness distinctions.
Consistent with this view, our findings suggest that the presence of politeness distinctions in pronouns is more prevalent in languages originating in geographical regions with greater ecological diversity. Furthermore, the findings suggest that hierarchical orientation is indeed more prevalent in communities whose languages are characterised by politeness distinctions. Finally, we find that jurisdictional hierarchy of ethnic groups in each language’s contemporary geographical homeland appears to be the mediating channel through which ecological diversity has affected the presence of politeness distinctions.
Further points of analysis
In our paper, we further discuss the geographical roots of comparative development, the interaction between the evolution of linguistic and cultural traits in the process of development, and the geographical origins of cultural traits and the determinants of their persistence over the course of human history.