Prehistoric population contact and language change

Brigitte Pakendorf

in The Oxford Handbook of Language Evolution

Published in print November 2011 | ISBN: 9780199541119
Published online September 2012 | | DOI:

Series: Oxford Handbooks in Linguistics

 Prehistoric population contact and language change

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  • Linguistics
  • Historical and Diachronic Linguistics


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The combination of in-depth molecular anthropological analyses and linguistic investigations exhibits some of the factors involved in the prehistoric language contact. The two parts of the human genome that are studied most widely in molecular anthropology, due to their very specific mode of inheritance, include mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) and the Y-chromosome. MtDNA is a small circular molecule that exists in large copy numbers in special little organelles in the cell called mitochondria. Its special advantage in molecular anthropological studies lies in the fact that it is inherited solely in the maternal line. The Y-chromosome, on the other hand, is one of two sex chromosomes found in the human genome, with the X-chromosome being its counterpart. Molecular anthropological analyses can provide indications of prehistoric admixture events, sex-biased migration patterns, decreases or increases of population size, and settlement practices. These results allow insights into prehistoric sociocultural practices that may have had an effect on language change in contact situations. The detection of prehistoric language shift is significantly important in the study of language contact. The language shift can result in a mismatch between the genetic and linguistic affiliation of a group, which can be detected with genetic methods. The linguistic investigations of languages, which can be shown genetically to have been the target of a language shift, can provide evidence for what linguistic changes, if any, such a shift produces.

Keywords: mitochondrial DNA; molecular anthropological analyses; linguistic investigations; Y-chromosome; prehistoric language shift

Article.  3211 words. 

Subjects: Linguistics ; Historical and Diachronic Linguistics

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