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Like the transfer of genetic variation through gene flow, language changes constantly as a result of its use in human interaction. Contact between speakers is most likely to happen when they are close in space, time, and social setting. Here, we investigated the role of geographical configuration in this process by studying linguistic diversity in Japan, which comprises a large connected mainland (less isolation, more potential contact) and smaller island clusters of the Ryukyuan archipelago (more isolation, less potential contact). We quantified linguistic diversity using dialectometric methods, and performed regression analyses to assess the extent to which distance in space and time predict contemporary linguistic diversity. We found that language diversity in general increases as geographic distance increases and as time passes-as with biodiversity. Moreover, we found that (I) for mainland languages, linguistic diversity is most strongly related to geographic distance-a so-called isolation-by-distance pattern, and that (II) for island languages, linguistic diversity reflects the time since varieties separated and diverged-an isolation-by-colonisation pattern. Together, these results confirm previous findings that (linguistic) diversity is shaped by distance, but also goes beyond this by demonstrating the critical role of geographic configuration.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

Publication Date





Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Gene Flow, Genetic Variation, Genetics, Population, Geography, Humans, Japan, Language, Linguistics