Interdisciplinary applications of linguistic concepts



It needs no reminder that there’s more than one language spoken in the world today: in fact, depending on how one counts, there’s some thousands of them out there, all wonderfully complex and exquisitely capable of making us, humans, develop cultures, societies and technologies beyond anything seen in the rest of the biological world. But why aren’t there, say only 2 or 3 "big" languages, or, at the other extreme, millions of them? How is this diversity patterned? Are the languages randomly spread across the world or are there "hot spots" of linguistic diversity? Are all languages related to each other? How about borrowing words, sounds and structures between languages? In this short course we will survey the shape of these patterns, the mechanisms that explain them, as well as the methods and data sources we can use, as scientists, to answer such questions. The course is designed to be accessible to students with a wide range of backgrounds and interests, but we will also explore some topics in relative detail, especially those of present-day relevance, resulting in "hot" papers in the likes of Science and Nature, and firing the public’s imagination.

Course plan

Part I: present-day and recent linguistic diversity

What is a language? Hockett’s design features in the 21stcentury. Spoken, signed, written, whistled, and drummed languages.
How many languages? Language – dialect – sociolect – register – idiolect – doculect. Number of speakers. Multilingualism, code-switching. Sign languages. The evolution of writing systems.
Languages change! Language families, historical linguistics, phylogenetic methods.
Language and environment. Language, family and structural diversities. Statistically analyzing structural diversity. Language spread and relationships with demographic spreads. Non-linguistic factors affecting linguistic diversity (climate, ecology, anatomy, genetics and cognition). Cultural evolution.

Part II: genetics, evolution, and language

The genetic bases of language. “Nature” versus “nurture”. Heritability. High-level overview of genetics. Using the genetics of height as a rough guide.
Modern evolutionary theory. Evolution, population genetics, gene-culture co-evolution and niche construction relevant for language diversity and evolution. The transition to agriculture, lactose tolerance, disease and the immune system. Evo-devo, niche construction, phenotypic plasticity.
Language origins and evolution. Brief overview of main theories and data, in the context of human evolution.


This will be based on participation in class (20%), a written essay (50%) on a theme related to that covered in the course (to be discussed individually) either individually or in pair (in which case the individual contributions should be clearly stated), and a “live” presentation to the class based on the essay (30%; planned during the last class of the course). The essays must be delivered before 25/01/2024.


Students having obtained a final grade between 3 and 4.9 can be re-evaluated on their written assignments. The maximum grade that can be obtained is 5. The essays must be delivered before 07/02/2024.

Examination-based assessment

Under exceptional and justified circumstances a single examination (100% of the grade) can be offered. Requirement: 10-page essay o be written on a topic to be agreed with the relevant instructor, delivered before 25/01/2024.
Re-evaluation of this assessment can only be considered for students having failed with grades ranging from 3 to 4.9. The maximum final grade could only be 5, delivered before 07/02/2024.



    Richerson, P. J., & Christiansen, M. H. (Eds.). (2013). Cultural evolution: Society, technology, language, and religion(Vol. 12). MIT Press.  Enllaç

    Diamond, J. M. (1997). Guns, germs, and steel. W. W. Norton.

    Ostler, N. (2005). Empires of the word: A language history of the world. New York: HarperCollins.

    Jobling, M. A., Hurles, M., & Tyler-Smith, C. (2019). Human evolutionary genetics: origins, peoples and disease. Garland Science.

    Sean B. Carroll (2005) Endless forms most beautiful. W. W. Norton

    Diamond, J. (2020). Armas, gérmenes y acero: breve historia de la humanidad en los últimos trece mil años. Debate.

    West-Eberhard, M. J. (2003). Developmental plasticity and evolution. Oxford University Press.

    Pääbo, S. (2014). Neanderthal man: In search of lost genomes. Hachette UK.

    Sykes, R. W. (2020). Kindred: Neanderthal life, love, death and art. Bloomsbury Publishing.

    Dediu, D. (2015). An introduction to genetics for language scientists. Cambridge University Press.


    Fisher, S. and S. Vernes. 2015. Genetics and Language sciences. Annual Review of Linguistics 1: 289-310.



    Some of the suggested resources are (many more – especially recent and very recent scientific papers – will appear during the class and in the actual slides):