Geography May Influence Sound System of Languages, New Study Suggests

Jun 13, 2013 by Sci-News.com

According to new research reported in the open-access journal PLoS ONE, the geographic context in which a language is spoken may directly impact its phonological form.

Locations of the languages analyzed in the study: dark circles represent languages with ejectives, clear circles represent those without ejectives. The inset shows six major inhabitable areas of high elevation: 1 - North American cordillera; 2 – Andes; 3 - Southern African plateau; 4 - East African rift; 5 - Caucasus and Javakheti plateau; 6 - Tibetan plateau and adjacent regions (Everett C.)

Locations of the languages analyzed in the study: dark circles represent languages with ejectives, clear circles represent those without ejectives. The inset shows six major inhabitable areas of high elevation: 1 – North American cordillera; 2 – Andes; 3 – Southern African plateau; 4 – East African rift; 5 – Caucasus and Javakheti plateau; 6 – Tibetan plateau and adjacent regions (Everett C.)

Language is formed by giving meaning to sounds and stringing together these meaningful expressions to communicate feelings and ideas. Until recently most linguists believed that the relationship between the structure of language and the natural world was mainly the influence of the environment on vocabulary.

The new study shows that there is a link between geographical elevation and the way language is spoken.

The findings reveal that languages containing ejective consonants are spoken mainly in regions of high elevation. Ejectives are sounds produced with an intensive burst of air, and are not found in the English language.

The results show that 87 percent of the languages with ejectives included in the study are located within 500 km of a region of high elevation on all continents.

The findings also indicate that as elevation increases, so does the likelihood of languages with ejectives.

“This is really strong evidence that geography does influence phonology – the sound system of languages,” said lead author Dr Caleb Everett from the University of Miami.

An area of high elevation is defined as exceeding 1.5 km above sea level. Most of the inhabitable high altitude areas of the world are found in six regions, including the North American Cordillera; the Andes and the Andean altiplano; the southern African plateau; the plateau of the east African rift and the Ethiopian highlands; the Caucasus range and Javakheti plateau; and the Tibetan plateau and surrounding plateaus.

The scientists analyzed the locations of about 600 representative languages. Ninety two of this sample had ejectives.

The results show a strong correlation between high altitude and the presence of ejectives in languages on, or near, five of the six major high altitude regions on earth where people live. The relationship is difficult to explain by other factors.

“I was really surprised when I looked at the data and saw that it correlated so well. It really does not rely very much on my interpretation, the evidence of a relationship between altitude and language is there,” Dr Everett said.

The only region with high elevation where languages with ejectives are absent is the large Tibetan plateau and the adjacent areas. People of this region have a unique adaptation to high altitude that may account for this fact.

“Ejectives are produced by creating a pocket of air in the pharynx then compressing it. Since air pressure decreases with altitude and it takes less effort to compress less dense air, I speculate that it’s easier to produce these sounds at high altitude.”

To make these sounds, the body uses air that is not pulmonic, this may reduce the amount of air exhaled from the lungs and decrease dehydration in high altitudes.

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Bibliographic information: Everett C. 2013. Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives. PLoS ONE 8 (6): e65275; doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065275