Dan Dediu

junior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2017/2018
discipline Linguistics
Senior Investigator, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, Nijmegen (Language and Genetics Department)

Research project

Biological and Environmental Influences on the Evolution of Linguistic Complexity: the Case of Phonetics and Phonology


The project expands upon my previous work connecting human biology (ultimately with a genetic foundation) to language diversity and evolution using an inter-disciplinary and data-driven quantitative approach.


More precisely, I am currently leading a 5-year project funded by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO) focusing on the influence of vocal tract anatomy on phonetic and phonological cross-linguistic diversity using a variety of approaches (including computer models, primary MRI and intra-oral data acquisition, cross-linguistic database analysis, and genetic association studies), that will be extended by the proposed EURIAS project in two main directions:

(a) given that biology and the environment are intimately inter-twined, what role do environmental factors (such as climate, vegetation cover, subsistence) play in biasing language change and producing patterns of cross-linguistic diversity in phonetics and phonology?

(b) weak inter-individual biases (biological or otherwise) can be amplified by the use and cultural transmission of language to result in cross-linguistic structural differences, but can they also explain the evolution of linguistic complexity and its cross-linguistic distribution?


Direction (a) will involve close collaboration with Dr. Christophe Coupé and will focus on identifying environmental factors that could have an effect on the vocal tract. This will build upon the methodology and candidates generated by my current project and will be a hybrid approach in the sense that it will combine both a priori hypotheses and exploratory analysis. The main methodological approach will be represented by the advanced statistical analysis of large databases and, possibly, computer simulations.

Direction (b) is more exploratory in nature as it is currently unclear if weak extra-linguistic biases can affect the evolution of linguistic complexity and its cross-linguistic patterning. Therefore, this sub-project will be built on several brain-storming sessions involving scientists from several disciplines and using different methodologies, followed by the analysis of the predicted consequences and their ascertainment in large databases and through computer modeling.


The project is a natural extension of my research program so far into the effects of environmental factors, on one hand, and the influence of weak extra-linguistic biases not only on linguistic diversity but also on linguistic complexity, on the other, and, as such, is mostly exploratory in nature, requiring the joint expertise accumulated across several disciplines, traditions and research centers. Nevertheless, there are a priori predictions generated by previous research (including my own as well as research conducted in Lyon) that will be tested, and I will employ data-driven quantitative methods for identifying such candidates and following them up.


The outcomes of the project will help clarify those properties of sound systems that are shaped by the environment inhabited by the language's speakers mediated by the human vocal tract, and to focus research on the evolution of linguistic complexity and its causes by bringing culturally amplified weak biases into focus. The long-term impact of the project will be in furthering an already successful inter-disciplinary research project and in expanding our multifaceted understanding of the complex processes shaping linguistic diversity and the evolution of human language.



Dan Dediu is senior investigator at the Language and Genetics Department of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics at Nijmegen (the Netherlands). He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Edinburgh. His main research interests are the complex relationships between language(s) and genes covering several scales, from the individual, through the population and to the evolutionary. He uses a variety of methods, including computer simulations, phylogenetic approaches, statistical techniques and experiments to probe the genetic bases of language and speech, and their interaction with cultural processes.

Selected publications

An Introduction to Genetics for Language Scientists. Current Concepts, Methods, and Findings, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2015.


'Repetition suppression in the left inferior frontal gyrus predicts tone learning performance', with S.S Asaridou, A. Takashima, P. Hagoort & J.M. McQueen. Cerebral Cortex, vol 26, no 6, 2016, pp. 2728-2742. 


'Anatomical biasing and clicks: Evidence from biomechanical modeling', with S.R. Moisik, Journal of Language Evolution, vol 2, no 1, 2017, pp. 37-51


'Language and biology: the multiple interactions between genetics and language, in N. Enfield, P. Kockelman & J. Sidnell (eds), Cambridge Handbook of Linguistic Anthropology, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2014, pp. 686-707.


'The time frame of the emergence of modern language and its implications', with S.C. Levinson, in D. Dor, C. Knight, & J. Lewis (eds.), The social origins of language, Oxford university Press, New York, 2014, pp. 184-195.




senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2016/2017
Collegium de Lyon
discipline Linguistics
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2013/2014
Collegium de Lyon
discipline Environmental Science
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Collegium de Lyon
discipline Environmental Studies
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Collegium de Lyon
discipline Geography