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A full-scale test of the language farming dispersal hypothesis


Hammarström,  Harald
Department of Linguistics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Max Planck Society;

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Hammarström, H. (2010). A full-scale test of the language farming dispersal hypothesis. Diachronica, 27(2), 197-213. doi:10.1075/dia.27.2.02ham.

One attempt at explaining why some language families are large (while others are small) is the hypothesis that the families that are now large became large because their ancestral speakers had a technological advantage, most often agriculture. Variants of this idea are referred to as the Language Farming Dispersal Hypothesis. Previously, detailed language family studies have uncovered various supporting examples and counterexamples to this idea. In the present paper I weigh the evidence from ALL attested language families. For each family, I use the number of member languages as a measure of cardinal size, member language coordinates to measure geospatial size and ethnographic evidence to assess subsistence status. This data shows that, although agricultural families tend to be larger in cardinal size, their size is hardly due to the simple presence of farming. If farming were responsible for language family expansions, we would expect a greater east-west geospatial spread of large families than is actually observed. The data, however, is compatible with weaker versions of the farming dispersal hypothesis as well with models where large families acquire farming because of their size, rather than the other way around.