Today, climate change and its effect on our lives are the topics of much discussion, even forcing some populations to move to safer places which are less exposed to the extinction risk. However, have you ever considered that climate can influence not only the hiumna being but also human language, specifically the way we speak? Recent scientific research has explored this issue and has revealed some interesting results.
Caleb Everett, an American anthropologist, has examined the geographical presence of tonal languages, such as Chinese, to understand in which parts of the world they are most widely spoken. Tonal languages are those for which the tone or pitch of the sound has distinctive meaning, or is used to distinguish between homographs. For example in Chinese, the word ma has three different meanings according to which tone is used, it can mean mother (mā 妈, first tone), hemp (má 麻, second tone) or horse (mă 马, third tone). Out of 656 tonal languages, only 2 are spoken in dry, cold regions whilst the remaining are spoken in hot, humid areas. This observation seems to suggest that humid climates lead to the development of tonal languages. The research notes that the humidity keeps the mucous membranes moist and makes them more elastic. It also changes the ion balance within the mucous membranes of the voice box. With good humidity, the voice box can oscillate sufficiently and produce the right tone. Naturally the study does not suggest that a Chinese living in Europe would lose the ability to speak their mother tongue. The research does however underline the existing correlation between areas where tonal languages have developed and humid climates.
Another study with interesting findings was conducted by Ian Maddieson and Christopher Coupé, linguists from the University of New Mexico and the Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage. The two researchers were interested in the prevalence of vowels and consonants in different languages. They found that in regions such as South-East Asia and several Pacific isles, languages with more vowel sounds have developed whilst in ountainous and wooded regions such as the Caucasian Mountains, consonant sounds are more common. The two scientists took inspiration from the animal kingdom as it has already been discovered that birdsong in forested environments has a different pitch than that of birdsong in other areas. This is because the sounds reflect at a different frequency off the leaves and trunks of the trees, making the message more difficult to understand, thus requiring a lower and more simple range of frequencies. This recalls our first researcher, Caleb Everett, who has also found a correlation between the presence of ejective consonants in a language and areas of high altitude. An ejective consonant is a type of vocal sound that does not require the use of air from the lungs like most vocal sounds, rather it is produced by compressing a certain amount of air in the pharynx, causing an elevation of the voice box which then allows the emission of a sound. Everett claims that the lower air density at higher altitude makes the necessary air compression easier. It would therefore not be natural to develop this sound at lower altitudes because a greater force would be required to compress the denser air. For more information you can listen to an explanation provided by the researcher.
Therefore, even if language phonetics are for the most part determined by different culture and peoples, it can be said that climate has also played an important role in the evolution of language. When listening to an Italian person speaking French, it is easy to note how similar the sound is to a southern French accent. Is it too far to presume that this similarity in phonetics is due to a similarity in the climate of the two regions? How much do you think climate plays a role in the evolution of language?