English dialects are felt in the genes

If you have to hit a nail, what tool do you ask? If you say hammer, do you pronounce the r? Do you drop the h?

Different people pronounce the same English words in different ways. People learn what words to use and how to pronounce them as they learn to speak to family, friends, and others in their community, so geographic patterns in these pronunciations can persist over time.

In England, pairs of words meaning similar things, such as sight and vision or yes and yes, can reveal a rich history of the language that is intertwined with the history of the place itself. These words have their origin in the migrations and conquests that took place during the Middle Ages. New words sometimes coexisted and sometimes replaced each other.

Researchers of cultural evolution like us know that it’s not just mountain ranges or oceans that can be barriers to interaction. Different people may share their technology, cuisine and ideas, but some tend to interact more often with those who share cultural similarities, a behavior called homophilia.

This can be seen most clearly when cultural traditions lead people to marry people from the same community. Populations that tend to intermarry within their group due to social or economic forces, including religious traditions and social stratification, have smaller gene pools, leading them to be more genetically similar to each other.

In addition to groups with distinctive marital practices, researchers have found relationships between genes and culture by studying groups that come from different ethnicities or different regions of the world. These similarities between genes and culture do not imply that certain genetic variants are unique to these groups, or that genetics cause certain cultures to arise. Rather, the same people may be more likely to share genetics and language due to a common history, especially due to significant geographic or social barriers between groups.

Can smaller things, like the different dialects between neighboring villages, shape the genetic landscape of populations? In our new study, we combined genetic and linguistic data from Britain to study the effects of culture on genetics at smaller geographic scales than are typically studied.

We looked at this relationship between cultural and genetic variation across Britain. In places where people move often, the small correlations between language and genes can be lost due to how quickly they change. As Britain is an island, few people entered its rural population between the times of the Norman conquest in 1066 and the late 19th century, making it ideal for our analysis.

two women and three children in 1956 collect water from a tub set against the stone wall of a house
In the mid-20th century, interviewers recorded how rural people spoke.
Bill Ellman/Mirrorpix via Getty Images

Combining two sets of data

Ideally, we could use a unified dataset that captures information about the genetics and dialects of people living in a region. Unfortunately, there is no such data. Instead, we used data from two separate studies that focused on people at approximately the same time and place.

For linguistic data, we relied on the Survey of English Dialects. Between 1950 and 1961, interviewers visited over 300 mostly rural locations and asked people hundreds of questions about their daily lives. Their responses recorded the sentences, words and sounds of local dialects of English. Each of these words can carry clues about where, or with whom, a person grew up.

The genetic data we used came from the People of the British Isles project, an academic investigation into how much British historical events of conquest, warfare and migration are reflected in British genetics. The project sequenced the DNA of more than 2,000 people in Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The researchers genotyped people whose grandparents born within 50 miles (80 kilometers) of each other were largely rural and born in the late 19th century.

The People of the British Isles project found that most of the genotypes were not local to any part of Britain, but were evenly distributed. However, historical movements of people into Britain have left genetic marks: compared to people in the rest of Britain, the genetics of those in southern England were slightly more similar to those in France following the Norman conquest a millennium ago, and the genetics of people in the former Danelaw were slightly more similar to modern Danes due to the settlement of the region by Vikings and later Danes. These events have led to groups of people with somewhat similar genetics, a phenomenon known as genetic clustering.

We used features from the Survey of English Dialects to measure where neighboring towns spoke most differently, which occurs at the boundaries between dialects. When people from neighboring towns speak the same dialect, we expect the characteristics of their language, such as if the r is pronounced at the end of words, to be similar. Conversely, if neighboring towns speak different dialects, their linguistic characteristics will be more diverse.

Many of these dialect boundaries have a long history, such as that separating Northern English from that of Southern England. Over time, dialects can persist in similar locations if geographic or cultural barriers affect how often and with whom people interact.

1938 black and white photo of the postman pushing his bike up the hill in the village
Rural life was more isolated in the past.
Fox photo/Hulton Archive via Getty Images

The echo of distant sounds

We found greater genetic differences at the boundaries between dialects. Our findings suggest that language, or some other aspect of culture, has limited how people have interacted to some extent over the past thousand years. By limiting how often people started families with those of neighboring groups, cultural differences maintained genetic evidence of the Norman conquest and other events of the Middle Ages.

This is the first time that information about language dialects has been compared with modern genetic data within a population, particularly at such a granular level. In particular, people speaking different dialects have no obvious reason to avoid marrying, as one would expect from groups with specific marriage customs. However, we find that even small-scale language differences, or other aspects of culture associated with these differences, can leave an impression on genes through people’s mating behaviors.

While people outside of Britain may think of a general British accent, the subtle differences between dialects appear to have parallels with the genetics of the region. This is despite the fact that the languages ​​brought by people who came to England have since mixed and merged to produce the modern English language and the dialects of today.

The data used in our study represent the genetic landscape and dialects of the late 19th century; both have changed significantly since then. Since the introduction of radio and television, the dialects have been influenced more by the surrounding cities. As a result, features of many English dialects in England, such as the pronunciation of r at the end of syllables, have become much less common.

At the same time, immigrants from the former British Empire and elsewhere brought a new influx of language. Britain’s cities have developed a number of new dialects rooted in the interactions between people of all ethnicities. As cultural barriers between groups fall, small human interactions form the bridges that allow people to deemphasize differences and learn from each other.

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Image Source : theconversation.com

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