Climate Influences Language Evolution
Winter is high time for humidifiers. Because dry air can irritate your throat. But a new study finds that arid conditions might have influenced the development of the very languages that some people speak.
"Extensive research on human physiology suggests that really dry air makes it hard for us to use our vocal cords very precisely."
Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguistics professor at the University of Miami.
He and his colleagues recently investigated that dry-throat-phenomenon in regards to complex tonal languages, like Cantonese <<Cantonese language sample>>, where various combinations of rising and falling tones can actually change the meaning of a word—as opposed to non-tonal languages, like English or Italian. <<Italian sample>> In the non-tonals, the fundamental meaning is the same, whether I say "word" "word" or "word." (said with different inflections)
By mapping the distribution of more than 3,700 tonal and non-tonal languages, Everett and his colleagues found that tonal languages tend to cluster in warm, humid areas. And they're 10 times less prevalent in dry, sub-freezing climes, like Siberia, compared with non-tonal languages. The study is in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. [Caleb Everett et al, Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots]
Of course, it’s physically possible to speak a tonal language in a cold place. "Obviously speakers of Cantonese for instance can communicate in Siberia and other dry places." The big picture, Everett says, is that language evolves in relation to where it’s spoken. "It is not impervious to the effects of environment. Just as ecologies impact human behavior and the adaptive processes of human cultures in myriad ways, they seem to also influence the ways in which languages develop."