News / Science & Technology

Environment May Affect Development of Language

'Eweh Ikau' means 'who are you' in Borneo Dayak language, and this Dayak child peeks out from behind a tree after a ceremony of traditional Dayak, October 2011.
'Eweh Ikau' means 'who are you' in Borneo Dayak language, and this Dayak child peeks out from behind a tree after a ceremony of traditional Dayak, October 2011.
Megan McGrath
There are about 7,000 languages in the world, and they are constantly evolving and changing. But it's a bit of a mystery why languages change the way they do. Anthropologist Caleb Everett of the University of Miami believes he may have found some of the first evidence that environment can influence the way people speak.

"I do remember standing up from my desk and saying, 'Wow, this is really striking,'" said Everett.

He knew that a small proportion of the world's languages use a sound called an "ejective consonant" - a sound made by pressurizing air in the back of the throat.

Environment May Affect Development of Language
Environment May Affect Development of Languagei
|| 0:00:00
...
 
🔇
X

To hear what one sounds like, say "kah" - but don't breathe out on the "k" sound. The air you need to make the sound comes from pressure in your throat alone. What you just said - "k'ah" - is the word for "bitter" in the Kekchi Maya language of Guatemala and Belize.

You can turn nearly any consonant into an ejective: "t'ah," or "p'ah," or "s'ah." Plenty of languages use these sounds, including six you can hear on VOA - Ethiopian Oromo and Amharic, Nigerian Hausa, Georgian, Armenian, and Korean.

Everett wondered if languages with ejectives might have something else in common. Because ejective consonants involve compressing air in the back of the throat, he thought that making the sounds at higher elevation - where there is less air pressure - might be easier. He took information on about 600 languages - 92 of which use ejective consonants - and started comparing the altitudes at which they are spoken.
He quickly found that 87 percent of languages with ejectives are spoken in and around areas of high elevation, at least 1,500 meters above sea level.

"I was sitting here at my desk," said Everett, "and I looked at the data, and I thought, 'Okay, it sort of works for North America, it works for South America - wow, it really works in Africa, and it works in Eurasia ... There's really nowhere that it doesn't work!'"

So far, Everett said, this is just an intriguing observation; he has no idea whether high elevation causes these sounds to develop, or if his findings are just an interesting coincidence.

If altitude is leading languages to develop more ejectives - perhaps because making these sounds is easier at lower air pressure - then this is some of the first evidence that environment can affect language development.

Everett also wondered if the physical process of making these unique sounds helps speakers retain moisture when they talk, lessening the risk of dehydration, which contributes to altitude sickness.  

"That would be a pretty big implication for the evolution of language," he said, "because it would suggest that languages have evolved in certain areas with a very slight health benefit of some kind."

The anthropologist said future experiments are necessary to investigate these questions, and to reveal how - or whether - the environment affects the way we speak.

You May Like

Turkey's Controversial Reform Bill Giving Investors Jitters

Homeland security reform bill will give police new powers in search, seizure, detention and arrests, while restricting the rights of suspects, their attorneys More

Audio Slideshow In Kenyan Prison, Good Grades Are Path to Freedom

Some inmates who get high marks could see their sentences commuted to non-custodial status More

'Rumble in the Jungle' Turns 40

'The Champ' knocked Foreman out to regain crown he had lost 7 years earlier when US government accused him of draft-dodging and boxing officials revoked his license More

This forum has been closed.
Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: Yoshi from: Sapporo
July 21, 2013 7:21 PM
Interesting story. Surely it may happen pronunciation would be enfluenced by environment because vocal cords would have different shapes according to circumstances.

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisiai
X
Henry Ridgwell
October 30, 2014 11:39 PM
Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Victorious Secularists Face Challenge to Form Government in Tunisia

Official results from Tunisia show the Islamist Ennahda party has failed to win the second free election since the so-called "Arab Spring" uprising in 2011. Ennahda, which handed power to a government of technocrats pending the elections, lost out to the secular party Nidaa Tounes. Henry Ridgwell reports from London that the relatively peaceful poll offers some hope in a volatile region.
Video

Video Africa Tells its Story Through Fashion

In Africa, Fashion Week is a riot of colors, shapes, patterns and fabrics - against the backdrop of its ongoing struggle between nature and its fast-growing urban edge. How do these ideas translate into needle and thread? VOA’s Anita Powell visited this year’s Mercedes Benz Fashion Week Africa in Johannesburg to find out.
Video

Video Smugglers Offer Cheap Passage From Turkey to Syria

Smugglers in Turkey offer a relatively cheap passage across the border into Syria. Ankara has stepped up efforts to stem the flow of foreign fighters who want to join Islamic State militants fighting for control of the Syrian border city of Kobani. But porous borders and border guards who can be bribed make illegal border crossings quite easy. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.

All About America

AppleAndroid