Geography shapes the sound of languages

Special laryngeal lobes have developed almost exclusively in mountain and high altitude

In the Caucasus there are several languages ​​that use ejective sounds, including Georgian. © Public domain
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How we speak and what words we use always reflects where and how we live. But now it turns out: The typical sounds of our language even reveal whether our ancestors once lived in the mountains or in the plains. Because, as a US researcher found out, almost all people living in mountainous areas use so-called ejective-sounds - consonants that end with a special laryngeal sound. This clear link between geography and language shows that the environment shapes the structure of languages ​​differently and stronger than thought, according to the scientist in the journal "PloS ONE".

In German and in the great majority of other languages, sounds are produced by the air flowing from the lungs through the vocal cords and manipulated by the throat, tongue and lips. But in some African and Indian languages ​​there are also clicks and special laryngeal lobes. In the so-called ejectors, the larynx rises and compresses the air in the pharynx. This is then suddenly expelled through the mouth, while the movement of the larynx creates a kind of happiness. It is neither inhaled nor exhaled. These sounds are widespread, for example, in many native languages ​​of the American West, but also in East and South Africa and in the Caucasus.

"Until now it was unclear what determines the distribution of such sounds in human languages, it was thought to be random, " explains Caleb Everett of the University of Miami at Coral Gables. He got to the bottom of this question by searching for a possible connection between geography and the appearance of ejectors in languages. His assumption: It could be that a lower air pressure, as is typical in higher elevations of the mountains, favors the formation of such ejective sounds. Because then less force is needed to produce the pressure difference between the air outside and the air in the throat.

Accumulation in mountains and on plateaus

For his study, the researcher analyzed 567 languages ​​and examined in which area, and especially at what altitude, the people who speak them. He came across a striking connection: Worldwide, the language families focus on ejecta in eight areas - and they all lie in regions with high mountains or high plateaus.

Map of the languages ​​with (dark points) and without ejective sounds: The mountains in mountainous regions are clearly visible. Caleb Everett / PloS ONE

Two of the largest clusters, consisting of Indian language families, are located in the Rocky Mountains and adjacent mountain ranges. A third is on the Colorado Plateau, a fourth in the Mexican Highlands. Three other clusters cover African languages, they are concentrated in the highlands of South Africa and in the mountainous regions along the East African trench. In Eurasia, there are ejecta in some languages ​​of the Caucasus, including in Georgian. display

Africa: Many ejective languages ​​concentrated in a few heights

"The most amazing thing is the clear consistency of language and locations more than 1, 500 meters high on the African continent, " explains Everett. For such highlands make up only a very small part of the land mass - and the mountains do not form contiguous heights, but rather are islands in the lowlands. In addition to some mountains and volcanic regions on the East African Rift, this is the South African Plateau and the Drakensberg in the southwest.

Especially in Africa, however, it also becomes particularly clear that this connection goes beyond individual language families, according to the researcher: the languages ​​spoken in the three ejective clusters belong to very different families. This shows that it must be the height that promotes the development of such sounds in one language - worldwide. The only exception is the Himalayan region: none of the local languages ​​use ejectors - why is unclear.

Larynx sounds save air and water

Why humans use ejaculatory sounds at a great height is still unclear. But Everett names two possible reasons: First, the generation of these sounds in the air is easier. Because in order to compress the air in such a way that the typical laryngeal movement takes place, one needs less force there, as the researcher explains.

But there is also a second advantage: Since the air for these sounds does not come directly from the lungs and the larynx is closed, a person loses less air and water vapor than a normal, connected with the exhalation sound. "By breathing alone, a person loses 300 to 400 milliliters of water per day, " says Everett. In the dry high air, the risk of dehydration of the body is particularly high, so it may be worthwhile to minimize water loss through the language.

The exact driving force for the formation of such ejective sounds still needs to be examined more closely. "But the findings of the study suggest that environmental factors may have shaped the structure of languages ​​in an unrecognized way, " says Everett. Proof of this is the clear link between geography and language that is now coming to light. (PLoS ONE, 2013; doi: 10.1371 / journal.pone.0065275)

(Public Library of Science, 13.06.2013 - NPO)