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

Video On the Scene: In Gaza, Darkness Brings Dread and Death

Palestinians fear nighttime raids, many feel abandoned by outside world, VOA's Scott Bobb reports More

African Small Farmers Could Be Key to Ending Food Insecurity

Experts say providing access to microloans, crop insurance, better storage facilities, irrigation, road systems and market information could enable greater production More

University of Michigan Wins Solar Car Race

Squad guided its student-designed solar-powered vehicle to fifth consecutive time victory in eight-day bi-annual American Solar Challenge 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.
Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spati
X
Reasey Poch
July 28, 2014 7:18 PM
China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video Vietnamese Staging Chinese Product Boycott After Oil Rig Spat

China recently pulled an oil rig from an area of the disputed South China Sea that Vietnam also claims. Despite the action, the incident has had a lingering effect on consumers in Vietnam. VOA's Reasey Poch reports from Hanoi on an effort to boycott Chinese products.
Video

Video ESA Spacecraft to Land on a Comet

After a long flight through deep space, a European Space Agency probe is finally approaching its target -- a comet millions of kilometers away from earth. Scientists say the mission may lead to some startling discoveries about the origins of the water on earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.
Video

Video Young Africans Arrive in US for Leadership Program

President Barack Obama's Young African Leadership Initiative has brought hundreds of young Africans to the United States for a six-week program aimed at building their knowledge and skills in fields such as public administration and business. Out of the 50,000 young Africans who applied for the program, just one percent was accepted. VOA's Laurel Bowman caught up with some of those who made the cut and has this report.
Video

Video In Honduras, Amnesty Rumors Fuel US Migration Surges

False rumors in Central America are fueling the current surge of undocumented young people being apprehended at the U.S. border. The inaccurate claims suggest the U.S. will give amnesty to young migrants from the region. As VOA's Brian Padden reports from Honduras, these rumors trace back to President Obama's 2012 executive order to halt deportations for some young undocumented immigrants already living in the United States.
Video

Video Students in Business for Themselves

They're only high school students, but they are making accessories for shoes, fabricating backpacks and doing product photography - all through their own businesses. It's the result of a partnership between a non-profit organization that teaches entrepreneurship and their schools. VOA's Mike O'Sullivan and Deyane Moses met the budding entrepreneurs near Los Angeles.
Video

Video Astronauts Train in Underwater Lab

In the world’s only underwater laboratory, four U.S. astronauts train for a planned visit to an asteroid. The lab - called Aquarius- is located five kilometers off Key Largo, in southern Florida. Living in close quarters and making excursions only into the surrounding ocean, they try to simulate the daily routine of a crew that will someday travel to collect samples of a rock orbiting far away from earth. VOA’s George Putic has more.

AppleAndroid