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Category: Linguistics

Linguistics and Genetics in Russian History: What’s the Connection?

For my first foray into Russian history, I’m reading Russia: The Once and Future Empire from Pre-History to Putin by Philip Longworth.

I have to say – I’m thoroughly enjoying it. The first chapter alone touches upon different environmental, linguistic, technological, and cultural aspects of Russian history that have shaped who the Russian people are today. For example, at least in early Russian civilization, women were actually thought to be more valued than men, but they were still subject to common stereotypes (present only to bear children, or solely responsible for providing, as Longworth puts it, “care and comfort”). Interestingly enough, Longworth mentions that the development of metal technology, which was essential for Russia’s technological revolution, may have played a role in turning that breakthrough around and re-establishing men as the center of society – talk about pros and cons!

There was, however, this one quote that really piqued my interest and got me thinking:

“Interestingly, geneticists suggest that linguistic variations are roughly in line with genetic variations. The Russian language and the genes that make Russians what they are physically are evidently inseparable.”

As a definite linguistics nerd and someone who’s always found “what makes you, you” (a.k.a, genes!) super cool, I was truly struck by that line.

Some background: according to Longworth, the geographical environment and climate primarily shaped the genetic structure of Russians, although there was some slight differentiation from mating with other ethnic groups. For instance, Longworth writes: “in more northerly areas, where [Russians] had less exposure to sunlight, their hair grew fairer and their skin lighter.” As the Russians migrated northward, they also faced geographical barriers such as dense forests, marshland, and a mountainous landscape which further diversified them genetically.

Interestingly, as the physical traits of the Russians transformed under geographical/climatic pressure, Old Slavonic (the first Slavic language) diversified at the same time, for some of the same reasons. Geographical barriers were not only responsible for genetic variations, but also for separating societies and promoting linguistic differentiations.

I thought this was pretty amazing – I didn’t even know there was a connection between the two! But I had so many questions. Geography played a huge role in the diversification – why? And was this all some isolated pattern, or a mere instance or first indication of a serious, all-encompassing trend in human evolution?

I did some further research on the topic; turns out, the answer leans toward the latter. Longworth describes a generally well-known phenomena in linguistics and biology; however, it’s only been observed in certain regions. I came across a 2011 paper called Parallel Evolution of Languages and Genes in the Caucasus Region, where the authors analyzed languages and DNA of indigenous peoples from different populations in the Caucasus region (includes Russia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia). They concluded that there was a strong correlation between genetic, geographical, and linguistic variation and that there was strong support for parallel evolution between language families and people’s physical traits. Another paper, published in the journal Current Biology, confirmed the existence of such a relationship in Cape Verde with the Creole population and their languages (Parallel Trajectories of Genetic and Linguistic Admixture in a Genetically Admixed Creole Population).

So, I hope you found this pretty interesting too. Let me know what you think in the comments, and stay tuned for more as I make my way through the book!

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