Document Type

Open Access Article


It is generally accepted that the relationship between human genes and language is very complex and multifaceted. This has its roots in the “regular” complexity governing the interplay among genes and between genes and environment for most phenotypes, but with the added layer of supraontogenetic and supra-individual processes defining culture. At the coarsest level, focusing on the species, it is clear that human-specific—but not necessarily faculty-specific—genetic factors subtend our capacity for language and a currently very productive research program is aiming at uncovering them. At the other end of the spectrum, it is uncontroversial that individual-level variations in different aspects related to speech and language have an important genetic component and their discovery and detailed characterization have already started to revolutionize the way we think about human nature. However, at the intermediate, glossogenetic/population level, the relationship becomes controversial, partly due to deeply ingrained beliefs about language acquisition and universality and partly because of confusions with a different type of genelanguages correlation due to shared history. Nevertheless, conceptual, mathematical and computational models—and, recently, experimental evidence from artificial languages and songbirds—have repeatedly shown that genetic biases affecting the acquisition or processing of aspects of language and speech can be amplified by population-level intergenerational cultural processes and made manifest either as fixed “universal” properties of language or as structured linguistic diversity. Here, I review several such models as well as the recently proposed case of a causal relationship between the distribution of tone languages and two genes related to brain growth and development, ASPM and Microcephalin, and I discuss the relevance of such genetic biasing for language evolution, change, and diversity.