EPFL scientists have developed a series of maps illustrating historical migration events, including the migration of mountain farmers native to Upper Valais who started to settle in German-speaking Switzerland in the 13th century by referring to methods from population genetics but utilizing linguistic data rather than genes.
Transposing methods from population genetics to linguistics might sound like a far-fetched suggestion.
However, this is precisely the novel approach utilized by a group of scientists at EPFL’s Laboratory of Geographic Information Systems (LASIG). The research had its origin in eastern Switzerland with SADS, a linguistic atlas project that seized morphosyntactic features in the language spoken by 3,000 residents of 383 Swiss German-speaking municipalities. “A colleague at the University of Zurich working on the spatial distribution of linguistic features contacted us at LASIG and asked us to help determine the geographical origins of Swiss German dialects,” says Stéphane Joost, a Senior Scientist at LASIG. “I was drawn to the idea of doing this kind of cross-disciplinary research. The prospect definitely piqued my curiosity.”
“Fortunately, this research didn’t require a high level of proficiency in German,” says Romano, who has since graduated from EPFL with a degree in environmental science and engineering and presently works as a geographic data analyst for the City of Lausanne. “Linguists supplied the data, and we applied a method taken from spatial population genetics that involves using algorithms to estimate hereditary ascendancy.”