Human Genetics and Languages


The similarities between the mode of inheritance and evolution of genes and languages have fostered interest in the joint analysis of both disciplines. The correlation between genes and languages was firstly demonstrated by Cavalli‐Sforza and collaborators comparing a tree build from ‘classical’ genetic markers to a linguistic tree of languages. Several criticisms to this correlation have been raised and a large number of exceptions have been described. It has been shown that the most plausible factor that influences in the correlation of genes and languages is geography. However, the information provided by genetics and linguistics, as well as the one provided by other disciplines, will allow us to reconstruct the history of humankind.

Keywords: genetic diversity; linguistic trees; genetic trees; language families; population genetics

Figure 1.

Map of main human linguistic families. Adapted from Ruhlen .

Figure 2.

Trees relating the genetic (left) and linguistic (right) human diversity. Continental areas in white represent either noninhabited areas or linguistic isolates. Linguistic families are coloured as in Figure .



Ayub Q, Mansoor A, Ismail M et al. (2003) Reconstruction of human evolutionary tree using polymorphic autosomal microsatellites. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 122(3): 259–268.

Barbujani G and Sokal RR (1990) Zones of sharp genetic change in Europe are also linguistic boundaries. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 87(5): 1816–1819.

Bateman R, Goddard I, O'Grady R et al. (1990) Speaking of forked tongues: the feasibility of reconciling human phylogeny and the history of language. Current Anthropology 31(1): 1–13.

Bosch E, Calafell F, Gonzalez‐Neira A et al. (2006) Paternal and maternal lineages in the Balkans show a homogeneous landscape over linguistic barriers, except for the isolated Aromuns. Annals of Human Genetics 70: 459–487.

Calafell F and Bertranpetit J (1994) Principal component analysis of gene frequencies and the origin of the Basques. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 93(2): 201–215.

Calafell F, Underhill P, Tolun A, Angelicheva D and Kalaydjieva L (1996) From Asia to Europe: mitochondrial DNA sequence variability in Bulgarians and Turks. Annals of Human Genetics 60: 35–49.

Cavalli‐Sforza LL (1997) Genes, peoples, and languages. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 94: 7719–7724.

Cavalli‐Sforza LL, Piazza A, Menozzi P and Mountain J (1998) Reconstruction of human evolution: bringing together genetic, archaeological, and linguistic data. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA 85: 6002–6006.

Cinnioglu C, King R, Kivisild T et al. (2004) Excavating Y‐chromosome haplotype strata in Anatolia. Human Genetics 114: 127–148.

Comas D, Calafell F, Mateu E, Pérez‐Lezaun A and Bertranpetit J (1996) Geographic variation in human mitochondrial DNA control region sequence: the population history of Turkey and its relationship to the European populations. Molecular Biology and Evolution 13(8): 1067–1077.

Darwin C (1859) On the Origin of Species. London: John Murray.

Enard W, Przeworski M, Fisher SE et al. (2002) Molecular evolution of FOXP2, a gene involved in speech and language. Nature 418: 869–872.

Falsetti AB and Sokal RR (1993) Genetic structure of human populations in the British Isles. Annals of Human Biology 20(3): 215–229.

Karafet TM, Osipova LP, Gubina MA et al. (2002) High levels of Y‐chromosome differentiation among native Siberian populations and the genetic signature of a boreal hunter‐gatherer way of life. Human Biology 74(6): 761–789.

Krause J, Lalueza‐Fox C, Orlando L et al. (2007) The derived FOXP2 variant of modern humans was shared with Neandertals. Current Biology 17(21): 1908–1912.

Lai CS, Fisher SE, Hurst JA, Vargha‐Khadem F and Monaco AP (2001) A forkhead‐domain gene is mutated in a severe speech and language disorder. Nature 413: 519–523.

Perez‐Lezaun A, Calafell F, Comas D et al. (1999) Sex‐specific migration patterns in Central Asian populations, revealed by analysis of Y‐chromosome short tandem repeats and mtDNA. American Journal of Human Genetics 65(1): 208–219.

Poloni ES, Semino O, Passarino G et al. (1997) Human genetic affinities for Y‐chromosome P49a,f/Taql haplotypes show strong correspondence with linguistics. American Journal of Human Genetics 61: 1015–1035.

Renfrew C (1994) World linguistic diversity. Scientific American 270: 116–123.

Rosser ZH, Zerjal T, Hurles ME et al. (2000) Y‐chromosomal diversity in Europe is clinal and influenced primarily by geography, rather than by language. American Journal of Human Genetics 67: 1526–1543.

Rubicz R, Melvin KL and Crawford MH (2002) Genetic evidence for the phylogenetic relationship between Na‐Dene and Yeniseian speakers. Human Biology 74(6): 743–760.

Ruhlen M (1991) A Guide to the World's Languages, 2nd edn. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Seielstad MT, Minch E and Cavalli‐Sforza LL (1998) Genetic evidence for a higher female migration rate in humans. Nature Genetics 20(3): 278–280.

Sokal RR and Thomson BA (1998) Spatial genetic structure of human populations in Japan. Human Biology 70(1): 1–22.

Wood ET, Stover DA, Ehret C et al. (2005) Contrasting patterns of Y chromosome and mtDNA variation in Africa: evidence for sex‐biased demographic processes. European Journal of Human Genetics 13(7): 867–876.

Zei G, Barbujani G, Lisa A et al. (1993) Barriers to gene flow estimated by surname distribution in Italy. Annals of Human Genetics 57: 123–140.

Further Reading

Belle EM and Barbujani G (2007) Worldwide analysis of multiple microsatellites: language diversity has a detectable influence on DNA diversity. American Journal of Physical Anthropology 133: 1137–1146.

Diamond J and Bellwood P (2003) Farmers and their languages: the first expansions. Science 300: 597–603.

Gray RD and Atkinson QD (2003) Language‐tree divergence times support the Anatolian theory of Indo‐European origin. Nature 426: 435–439.

Saha A, Udhayasuriyan PT, Bhat KV and Bamezai R (2003) Analysis of Indian population based on Y‐STRs reveals existence of male gene flow across different language groups. DNA and Cell Biology 22: 707–719.

Sahoo S and Kashyap VK (2005) Influence of language and ancestry on genetic structure of contiguous populations. BMC Genetics 6(1): 4.

Contact Editor close
Submit a note to the editor about this article by filling in the form below.

* Required Field

How to Cite close
Comas, David, Bosch, Elena, and Calafell, Francesc(Jul 2008) Human Genetics and Languages. In: eLS. John Wiley & Sons Ltd, Chichester. [doi: 10.1002/9780470015902.a0020810]