Home > Random, Research > Do jungles influence language evolution?

Do jungles influence language evolution?


A few days ago, I went into Tesco to pick up a few bits and pieces, and as I was browsing through the newspaper section, the front cover of New Scientist caught my eye with a headline article about language. This was particularly intriguing because linguistics research doesn’t normally make the front page of an internationally acclaimed science publication such as New Scientist, so I decided to have a quick look and see what was going on.

The gist of the article was about how languages eventually become separate from one another and how languages evolve different phonologies, grammars, lexis and so on. By examining the phonemic inventory of different languages, Quentin Atkinson (University of Auckland) applies the ‘serial founder effect’. Basically, as human society spread out from the ‘cradle of civilisation’ in Africa, genetic diversity declines. Applying the same idea to languages, Atkinson argues that as languages started to spread out, the phonemic inventory of languages decreases. This explains why Taa (spoken in Botswana) has about 110 phonemes, while the Papuan language Rotokas only has 11. So as languages migrate, they lose more phonemes, and that means that obviously we only need quite a small inventory of sounds to be able to make distinctive meanings. Quite cool and quite plausible, although I’m not particularly well-versed in the literature to decide if it’s a robust finding or not.

But where the article got really cool was in the discussion of how different languages develop along different lines dependent on their environmental context. Drawing on work by Robert Munroe (Pitzer College, California, which is also where Ronald Macaulay is emeritus professor), the article outlines the idea that where we live has an important impact on the kinds of sounds we use.

“[Munroe] noticed that languages in these tropical places tend to separate their consonants with vowels–they barely have any words like “linguistics”, for instance, with its bunches of consonants rubbing shoulders. Since vowels are easier to hear at a distance than most consonants, Munroe began to suspect that people in warmer countries use sounds that help them communicate outdoors. In contrast, people in chillier climates might be more likely to talk indoors, so it’s not as important to use sounds that carry.”

Ok, some interesting ideas, up to a point, but one thing that stuck with me was this:

“Nasal sounds like “n” and “m” are more common in warm regions, while “obstruents” like “t”, “g” and the Scottish “och” sound are more common in cooler ones.”

But /m/ and /n/ are used all over English (and other “colder” places), and /x/ is used in (some varieties of) German as well (similar kind of climate as the UK, but generally hotter summers), so how does that work? Moreover, how does this apply to climates which are very changeable from season to season (witness the crazy weather we’ve had in the UK over the past two years as a case in point)? Is there something inherent in why Hawaiian has ‘more’ vowels than English (an interesting comedy take on this was that on the boat over to Hawaii, they lost all their consonants overboard), simply because it’s hotter? And in terms of settlement patterns, once shelter and so on is built, doesn’t that negate the impact of other environmental factors? I mean, this is all a very attractive kind of proposition, but does it really stand up to scrutiny?

It’s really interesting that these questions are being raised, and the idea that somehow our languages have been shaped by whether or not we’re surrounded by trees or whether it’s generally quite hot most of the year is kind of cool, but I worry about this being a kind of ex post facto explanation.

Perhaps as sociolinguists, we should be thinking about whether or not people who live in high rise buildings will have shorter vowels. After all, there’s less air up there, so less articulatory effort might be appreciated. I’m telling you, we’re missing a trick here…

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  1. a.d.p.h.
    December 10, 2011 at 8:54 pm

    “Nasal sounds like “n” and “m” are more common in warm regions, while “obstruents” like “t”, “g” and the Scottish ”och” sound are more common in cooler ones.”

    Is this correlation or causation? Assuming that it’s true (the “more common” bit), it’s not particularly interesting. I haven’t read the article, so I don’t know the connection being made. But, suffice to say, there are plenty of reasons that that may be the case without one causing the other. (I’m also assuming your final paragraph is sarcastic hence you’d agree with this)

    It’s clearly a bit of a dangerous and simplified argument. Having said that, I don’t know much about how New Scientist represent scientific research (whether they iron out the ifs and buts, etc.). Even if environmental factors do play a part, it’s clearly MUCH more complicated than that.

  2. December 11, 2011 at 11:11 am

    The article’s not at all clear about the statistical relationship between ‘sounds’ and ‘environment’, but that’s not to say that it’s not discussed in the article (which I can’t access…).

    And yes, the last paragraph is sarcastic 😉

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