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

    Wife of IS Leader Charged in Death of US Hostage

    Suspect allegedly admitted to being responsible for American aid worker Kayla Mueller, who officials say was sexually abused and ‘owned’ by one IS member

    Year of the Monkey Could Prove Economic Balancing Act for China

    China is up against a tricky situation on the financial front, facing the need to fight capital flight while also stopping a further slide of foreign currency reserves

    Runners Attempt 26-mile South Pole Marathon in Sub-Zero Temperatures

    How alluring is running 26.2 miles at 10,000 feet when it’s minus 31 Celsius out?

    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.
    'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenyai
    X
    February 08, 2016 4:30 PM
    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video 'No Means No' Program Targets Sexual Violence in Kenya

    The organizers of an initiative to reduce and stop rape in the informal settlements around Kenya's capital say their program is having marked success. Girls are taking self-defense classes while the boys are learning how to protect the girls and respect them. Lenny Ruvaga reports from Nairobi.
    Video

    Video New Hampshire Voters Are Independent, Mindful of History

    Once every four years, the northeastern state of New Hampshire becomes the center of the U.S. political universe with its first-in-the-nation presidential primary. What's unusual about New Hampshire is how seriously the voters take their role and the responsibility of being among the first to weigh in on the candidates.
    Video

    Video Chocolate Lovers Get a Sweet History Lesson

    Observed in many countries around the world, Valentine’s Day is sometimes celebrated with chocolate festivals. But at a festival near Washington, the visitors experience a bit more than a sugar rush. They go on a sweet journey through history. VOA’s June Soh takes us to the festival.
    Video

    Video 'Smart' Bandages Could Heal Wounds More Quickly

    Simple bandages are usually seen as the first line of attack in healing small to moderate wounds and burns. But scientists say new synthetic materials with embedded microsensors could turn bandages into a much more valuable tool for emergency physicians. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Bhutanese Refugees in New Hampshire Closely Watching Primary Election

    They fled their country and lived in refugee camps in neighboring Nepal for decades before being resettled in the northeastern U.S. state of New Hampshire -- now the focus of the U.S. presidential contest. VOA correspondent Aru Pande spoke with members of the Bhutanese community, including new American citizens, about the campaign and the strong anti-immigrant rhetoric of some of the candidates.
    Video

    Video Researchers Use 3-D Printer to Produce Transplantable Body Parts

    Human organ transplants have become fairly common around the world in the past few decades. Researchers at various universities are coordinating their efforts to find solutions -- including teams at the University of Pennsylvania and Rice University in Houston that are experimenting with a 3-D printer -- to make blood vessels and other structures for implant. As VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Houston, they are also using these artificial body parts to seek ways of defeating cancerous tumors.
    Video

    Video Helping the Blind 'See' Great Art

    There are 285 million blind and visually impaired people in the world who are unable to enjoy visual art at a museum. One New York photographer is trying to fix this situation by making tangible copies of the world’s masterpieces. VOA correspondent Victoria Kupchinetsky was there as visually impaired people got a feel for great art. Joy Wagner narrates her report.
    Video

    Video Sanders, Clinton Battle for Young Democratic Vote

    Despite a narrow loss to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in last week's Iowa Democratic caucuses, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders secured more than 80 percent of the vote among those between the ages of 18 and 29. VOA correspondent Aru Pande talks to Democrats in New Hampshire about who they are leaning towards and why in this week's primary.
    Video

    Video German Artists to Memorialize Refugees With Life Jacket Exhibit

    Sold in every kind of shop in some Turkish port towns, life jackets have become a symbol of the refugee crisis that brought a million people to Europe in 2015.  On the shores of Lesbos, Greece, German artists collect discarded life jackets as they prepare an art installation they plan to display in Germany.  For VOA, Hamada Elrasam has this report from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video E-readers Help Ease Africa's Book Shortage

    Millions of people in Africa can't read, and there's a chronic shortage of books. A non-profit organization called Worldreader is trying to help change all that one e-reader at a time. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us about a girls' school in Nairobi, Kenya where Worldreader is making a difference.
    Video

    Video Genius Lets World Share Its Knowledge

    Inspired by crowdsourcing companies like Wikipedia, Genius allows anyone to edit anything on the web, using its web annotation tool
    Video

    Video In Philippines, Mixed Feelings About Greater US Military Presence

    In the Philippines, some who will be directly affected by a recent Supreme Court decision clearing the way for more United States troop visits are having mixed reactions.  The increased rotations come at a time when the Philippines is trying to build up its military in the face of growing maritime assertiveness from China.  From Bahile, Palawan on the coast of the South China Sea, Simone Orendain has this story.
    Video

    Video Microcephaly's Connection to Zika: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

    The Zika virus rarely causes problems for the people who get it, but it seems to be having a devastating impact on babies whose mothers are infected with Zika. VOA's Carol Pearson has more.
    Video

    Video Stunning Artworks Attract Record Crowds, Thanks to Social Media

    A new exhibit at the oldest art museum in America is shattering attendance records. Thousands of visitors are lining up to see nine giant works of art that have gotten a much-deserved shot of viral marketing. The 150-year-old Smithsonian American Art Museum has never had a response quite like this. VOA's Julie Taboh reports.