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Human languages differ broadly in abundance and are distributed highly unevenly on the Earth. In many qualitative and quantitative aspects, they strongly resemble biodiversity distributions. An intriguing and previously unexplored issue is the architecture of the neighbouring relationships between human linguistic groups. Here we construct and characterize these networks of contacts and show that they represent a new kind of spatial network with uncommon structural properties. Remarkably, language networks share a meaningful property with food webs: both are quasi-interval graphs. In food webs, intervality is linked to the existence of a niche space of low dimensionality; in language networks, we show that the unique relevant variable is the area occupied by the speakers of a language. By means of a range model analogous to niche models in ecology, we show that a geometric restriction of perimeter covering by neighbouring linguistic domains explains the structural patterns observed. Our findings may be of interest in the development of models for language dynamics or regarding the propagation of cultural innovations. In relation to species distribution, they pose the question of whether the spatial features of species ranges share architecture, and eventually generating mechanism, with the distribution of human linguistic groups.
spatial networks; food-web structure; interval graphs; species ranges; niche dimension