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

    Native Americans Ask: What About Our Water Supply?

    They say they have been facing a dangerous water contaminant for decades - uranium – but the problem has received far less attention than water contamination by lead in Flint, Michigan

    Pakistan's President Urges Nation Not to Celebrate Valentine's Day

    Mamnoon Hussain criticizes Valentine's Day, which falls on Sunday this year, as a Western import that threatens to undermine the Islamic values of Pakistan

    Mother of IS Supporter: Son Was Peaceful, 'Role Model'

    Somali-American Abdirizak Mohamed Warsame pleaded guilty Thursday to charges of conspiring to provide material support to Islamic State militants

    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.
    Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortagei
    X
    February 12, 2016 7:31 PM
    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Two-thirds of World Faces Water Shortage

    Four billion people — or two out of every three on the planet — do not have enough water to meet their basic needs. That is far greater than previously thought, according to a new study that presents a more accurate picture of the problem. As VOA's Rosanne Skirble reports, the findings will help policymakers and the public craft solutions to address the threat.
    Video

    Video Gateway to Mecca: Historical Old Jeddah

    Local leader Sami Nawar's family has been in the Old City of Jeddah for hundreds of years and takes us on a tour of this ancient route to Mecca, also believed to be the final resting place of Adam's wife, Eve.
    Video

    Video New Technology Aims to Bring Election Transparency to Uganda

    A team of recent graduates from Uganda’s Makerere University has created a mobile application designed to help monitor elections and expose possible rigging. The developers say the app, called E-Poll, will make Uganda's democratic process fairer. From Kampala, VOA's Serginho Roosblad reports.
    Video

    Video As Refugees Perish, Greek Graveyards Fill

    Aid workers on the Greek island of Lesbos say they are struggling to bury the increasing number of bodies of refugees that have been recovered or washed up ashore in recent months.  The graveyards are all full, they say, yet as tens of thousands of people clamor to get out of Syria, it is clear refugees will still be coming in record numbers. For VOA, Hamada Elrasam reports from Lesbos, Greece.
    Video

    Video Russia Bristles at NATO Expansion in E. Europe

    Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is meeting Friday with the head of NATO after the Western military alliance and the United States announced plans for the biggest military build-up in Europe since the Cold War. Russia has called NATO's moves a threat to stability in Europe. But NATO says the troop rotations and equipment are aimed at reassuring allies concerned about Russia as VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video To Fight Zika, Scientists Target Mosquitoes

    Mosquitoes strike again. The Zika virus outbreak is just the latest headline-grabbing epidemic carried by these biting pests, but researchers are fighting back with new ways to control them. VOA's Steve Baragona takes a look.
    Video

    Video Mosul Refugees Talk About Life Under IS

    A top U.S. intelligence official told Congress this week that a planned Iraqi-led operation to re-take the city of Mosul from Islamic State militants is unlikely to take place this year. IS took over the city in June 2014, and for the past year and a half, Mosul residents have been held captive under its rule. VOA's Zana Omar talked to some families who managed to escape. Bronwyn Benito narrates his report.
    Video

    Video Scientists Make Progress Toward Better Diabetes Treatment, Cure

    Scientists at two of the top U.S. universities say they have made significant advances in their quest to find a more efficient treatment for diabetes and eventually a cure. According to the International Diabetes Federation, the disease affects more than 370 million people worldwide. VOA’s George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video NATO to Target Migrant Smugglers

    NATO has announced plans to send warships to the Aegean Sea to target migrant smugglers in the alliance's most direct intervention so far since a wave of people began trying to reach European shores.
    Video

    Video Russia's Catholics, Orthodox Hopeful on Historic Pope-Patriarch Meeting

    Russia's Catholic minority has welcomed an historic first meeting Friday in Cuba between the Pope and the Patriarch of Russia's dominant Orthodox Church. The Orthodox Church split with Rome in 1054 and analysts say politics, both church and state, have been driving the relationship in the centuries since. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.
    Video

    Video Used Books Get a New Life on the Streets of Lagos

    Used booksellers are importing books from abroad and selling them on the streets of Africa's largest city. What‘s popular with readers may surprise you. Chris Stein reports from Lagos.
    Video

    Video After NH Primaries All Eyes on South Carolina

    After Tuesday's primary in New Hampshire, US presidential candidates swiftly turned to the next election coming up in South Carolina. The so-called “first-in-the-South” poll may help further narrow down the field of candidates. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video Smartphone Helps Grow Vegetables

    One day, you may be using your smartphone to grow your vegetables. A Taipei-based company has developed a farm cube — a small, enclosed ecosystem designed to grow plants indoors. The environment inside is automatically adjusted by the cube, but it can also be controlled through an app. VOA's Deborah Block has more on the gardening system.
    Video

    Video Exhibit Turns da Vinci’s Drawings Into Real Objects

    In addition to being a successful artist, Renaissance genius Leonardo da Vinci designed many practical machines, some of which are still in use today, although in different forms. But a number of his projects were never realized — until today. VOA’s George Putic reports.