Do Geography and Altitude Shape the Sounds of a Language?
Languages that evolve at high elevations are more likely to include a sound that’s easier to make when the air is thinner, new research shows. (Photo: A. Skomorowska)
“[R]ecently, Caleb Everett, a linguist at the University of Miami, made a surprising discovery that suggests the assortment of sounds in human languages is not so random after all.
When Everett analyzed hundreds of different languages from around the world, as part of a study published today in PLOS ONE, he found that those that originally developed at higher elevations are significantly more likely to include ejective consonants. Moreover, he suggests an explanation that, at least intuitively, makes a lot of sense: The lower air pressure present at higher elevations enables speakers to make these ejective sounds with much less effort. (…)
The origin points of each of the languages studied, with black circles representing those with ejective sounds and empty circles those without. The inset plots by latitude and longitude the high-altitude inhabitable regions, where elevations exceed 1500 meters. (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. Image via PLOS ONE/Caleb Everett
Everett started out by pulling a geographically diverse sampling of 567 languages from the pool of an estimated 6,909 that are currently spoken worldwide. For each language, he used one location that most accurately represented its point of origin, according to the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures. English, for example, was plotted as originating in England, even though it’s spread widely in the years since. But for most of the languages, making this determination is much less difficult than for English, since they’re typically pretty restricted in terms of geographic scope (the average number of speakers of each languageanalyzedis just 7,000).
He then compared the traits of the 475 languages that do not contain ejective consonants with the 92 that do. The ejective languages were clustered in eight geographic groups that roughly corresponded with five regions of high elevation—the North American Cordillera (which include the Cascades and the Sierra Nevadas), the Andes and the Andean altiplano, the southern African plateau, the plateau of the east African rift and the Caucasus range.
When Everett broke things down statistically, he found that 87 percent of the languages with ejectives were located in or near high altitude regions (defined as places with elevations 1500 meters or greater), compared to just 43 precent of the languages without the sound. Of all languages located far from regions with high elevation, just 4 percent contained ejectives. And when he sliced the elevation criteria more finely—rather than just high altitude versus. low altitude—he found that the odds of a given language containing ejectives kept increasing as the elevation of its origin point also increased:
Everett’s explanation for this phenomenon is fairly simple: Making ejective sounds requires effort, but slightly less effort when the air is thinner, as is the case at high altitudes. This is because the sound depends upon the speaker compressing a breath of air and releasing it in a sudden burst that accompanies the sound, and compressing air is easier when it’s less dense to begin with. As a result, over the thousands of years and countless random events that shape the evolution of a language, those that developed at high altitudes became gradually more and more likely to incorporate and retain ejectives. Noticeably absent, however, are ejectives in languages that originate close to the Tibetean and Iranian plateaus, a region known colloquially as the roof of the world.
The finding could prompt linguists to look for other geographically-driven trends in the languages spoken around the world. For instance, there might be sounds that are easier to make at lower elevations, or perhaps drier air could make certain sounds trip off the tongue more readily.”
— Joseph Stromberg, Do Geography and Altitude Shape the Sounds of a Language?, Smithsonian, June 12, 2013.
“We present evidence that the geographic context in which a language is spoken may directly impact its phonological form. We examined the geographic coordinates and elevations of 567 language locations represented in a worldwide phonetic database. Languages with phonemic ejective consonants were found to occur closer to inhabitable regions of high elevation, when contrasted to languages without this class of sounds. In addition, the mean and median elevations of the locations of languages with ejectives were found to be comparatively high.
The patterns uncovered surface on all major world landmasses, and are not the result of the influence of particular language families. They reflect a significant and positive worldwide correlation between elevation and the likelihood that a language employs ejective phonemes. In addition to documenting this correlation in detail, we offer two plausible motivations for its existence.
We suggest that ejective sounds might be facilitated at higher elevations due to the associated decrease in ambient air pressure, which reduces the physiological effort required for the compression of air in the pharyngeal cavity–a unique articulatory component of ejective sounds. In addition, we hypothesize that ejective sounds may help to mitigate rates of water vapor loss through exhaled air. These explications demonstrate how a reduction of ambient air density could promote the usage of ejective phonemes in a given language. Our results reveal the direct influence of a geographic factor on the basic sound inventories of human languages.”
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