The languages we speak and the accents we retain over time are not just means of communication; they shape our fundamental sense of self. Certainly, we acquire the nuances of language and speech from our surroundings and the cultural heritage we embrace. But how do these subtle distinctions get amplified by environmental and climate influences?
A recent study published by Frontiers in Psychology, reveals the hidden influence of climate on the way we speak. The study found that our local climate has a subtle influence on the language we use, how we pronounce particular words, and the words and phrases we are most likely to use.
The researchers factored in humidity, altitude, temperature, precipitation, and vegetation density in different parts of the world, and analysed their influence on the languages spoken in those regions. Here's what they found.
The language-environment relationship
According to the study, the connection between linguistic diversity and climate runs much deeper than we might think. Explaining the intent behind the study, Ian Maddieson, the researcher who led the study said, "The idea was to basically look for what kinds of correlations there are between these design features of sound systems of languages and the properties of the environment in which they are spoken.”
Findings of the research include several interesting trends, such as a greater reliance on vowels in hot and humid environments and a predominance of ejective or voiceless consonants (such as English alphabets k and q) in higher altitudes.
Explaining the trend, the study states, "At high altitude, you want to preserve the moisture in your vocal tract, so you use sounds that don’t involve connecting to the outside air. This is the kind of sound where the vocal folds are closed, so you’re isolating the air that’s in the mouth from the rest of the lungs or from connecting to the outside world.”
Languages spoken in humid regions often featured more intricate tone systems. In contrast, areas with elevated mercury levels and heavy precipitation tended to employ simpler consonant structures, such as the absence of complex combinations like 'ck' in 'black' or 'nk' in 'think.'
Interestingly, humans aren't the only creature whose speech is influenced by their surroundings. The study also briefly throws light on how animals may adapt their vocalisations to environmental conditions.
It suggests that animals may adapt their vocalisations to better suit the acoustic properties of their environment, such as by producing higher-frequency sounds in noisy environments, like an urban set-up, and lower-frequency sounds in quiet rural environments.
How was the study undertaken?
The sample size for the study was over 1,000 languages, spanning a timeline spread across 300 years. The research aimed to represent regions with many languages, mainly tropical areas near the equator. Additionally, it sought to include languages from diverse environments like deserts, high-altitude locations, and high latitudes.
The data was collected from diverse sources, for instance, the linguistic data was obtained from sources, including published grammars, dictionaries, and phonetic studies, as well as fieldwork by the authors. The climate and environmental data came from publicly accessible sources like the National Centers for Environmental Information and Global Time Series Climate dataset.
However, this study is only the tip of the iceberg, as the researchers point out that they have not taken into account, how climate change could play a role in shaping the way we speak, over time.
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