Ejectives are easier to make at high altitudes since they involve the compression of air, and ejectives also help to reduce the rate of water vapour lost through speech.
Certain types of consonant sound are more common in languages spoken at high altitudes, according to anthropological linguist Dr Caleb Everett…
Dr Caleb Everett
The origin of language has been a hotly debated topic for hundreds of years, and we may never know how, when, where or even exactly why human language first emerged. However, research which recently appeared in the open access journal PLOS ONE
provides evidence for at least one of the factors that must have shaped language as it formed and developed.
According to Dr Caleb Everett, an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Miami, the sounds used in different languages – their phonology – are influenced by geography and, more specifically, topography.
In an interview with ScienceOmega.com
, Dr Everett explained how he came to investigate the effects of geographic context on the phonology of human language.
"Most of my work, which is on language and cognition, is carried out with Amazonian populations," he related. "However, I have also spent some time studying human sound systems, and was led to this research after reading a paper by some anthropologists who suggested that climate could impact sound systems. The data there aren't so convincing, but they got me to thinking about the role of geography."
A strong correlation
Dr Everett analysed data on around 600 languages, comparing the altitude of the region from which they originated and where they were spoken with the presence or absence of consonants known as ejectives.
"I used the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (WALS) Online, so drawing the comparisons was a matter of extracting the relevant data from the database and using the appropriate geographic and statistical methods," Dr Everett stated. "The confounding variable is relationships between languages of particular language families, but this variable was accounted for in the analysis."
Ejective consonants are produced by creating an air pocket in the pharynx before expelling it, and they occur in roughly 20 per cent of the world’s natural languages. Although absent in English and other European tongues, ejectives are common in the native languages of northwestern North America and indeed in most western regions of North and South America. They occur in many languages in southern and eastern Africa, such as Zulu and Tigrinya, and also in the three language families originating from the Caucasus. Na’vi, the constructed language which was created for James Cameron’s film Avatar
, was designed to include ejectives.
Dr Everett’s analysis uncovered a strong correlation between the presence of ejective consonants in languages and high altitudes. The study found that languages with ejectives are spoken on or near five of the six major high altitude regions which are inhabited by people.
Geography and phonology are linked
Although he hypothesised that such a relationship might exist, Dr Everett admitted that he was still surprised by the strength of the correlation. But what reason is there for this association to be present?
"I think, at this early stage, that there are two possible reasons that the correlation could exist," he said. "Ejectives are easier to make at high altitudes since they involve the compression of air, and ejectives also help to reduce the rate of water vapour lost through speech."
Both hypotheses will require further experimental testing, but this is evidence that geography has influenced the phonology of languages in ways that have, for the most part, gone unrecognised. The case of ejectives is not the only one to support this conclusion.
"In ongoing research there is evidence that languages in areas with really cold climates rely more heavily on consonants versus vowels, in comparison to languages in warmer climates," Dr Everett confirmed.
"Presently I'm analysing data on the relationship between cold climates and syllable structure. Roughly speaking, this means assessing how far languages rely on consonants compared to vowels."
Please click here to read the full text of the research paper...