We love to talk about the weather, probably because it gives us plenty to whinge about. But does it affect not just what we talk about, but also how we talk?
Ok, so we’re not actually talking weather here, more climate and geography. But linguists have long debated whether they cause sounds to change, and even if they affect how different languages evolve.
To investigate, a team from the University of Miami examined 3,700 languages around the world. Many use tone or pitch to give meaning to their words and the team found that of the 629 languages which have complex tones (i.e., use three or more tones for sound contrast), these are much more likely to occur in humid regions of the world.
Most were found in tropical regions, throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, but also in some humid regions of North America, Amazonia and New Guinea. By contrast, languages with a simple tone occur more frequently in desiccated regions, whether frigid areas or dry deserts.
“In my estimation, it changes a bit our understanding of how languages evolve,” said Caleb Everett, lead investigator of the project. “It does not imply that languages are completely determined by climate, but that climate can, over the long haul, be one of the factors that helps shape languages.”
“More broadly, this suggests another non-conscious way in which humans have adapted to their very different and harsh environments,” Everett said. “Also, there may be some health benefits to certain sound patterns in certain climates, but more research is needed to establish that in a satisfactory way.”
One explanation made by the researchers is that inhaling dry air causes laryngeal dehydration and decreases vocal fold elasticity, making it much more difficult to achieve complex tones in arid climates – particularly very cold ones – when contrasted to warmer and more humid climates. The result is that deviations of sounds, including increased jitter and shimmer, are associated with very cold or desiccated climates, the study says.
The findings, which suggest that sound systems of human languages are adaptive and can be influenced by climate, are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
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