Humans communicate through languages, be it through written and spoken words or through images and body signals. The entire world is filled with languages that are vibrant and complex in every aspect. Some grew similarly in structure, while some evolved singularly in enunciation.
Linguists believe that climate and environmental conditions may have influenced the evolution of human languages in different parts of the world. A duo of scholars recently revealed they have found the link between different sounds in a language and the climate in which it evolved.
Ian Maddieson and Christopher Coupé, linguists from the University of New Mexico and Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage-CNRS in France respectively, studied phonology or the mechanics behind words and sounds. The duo will be presenting their findings at the 170th Acoustical Society of America meeting in Florida.
The study involved the analysis of about 628 languages from all over the world, and focused on the theory of acoustic adaptation which explains that the natural environment and landscape in a region can influence the kinds of sounds produced by animals, especially humans, as a form of communication.
"We believe that some part of the characteristics of the sound patterns in languages is shaped by the ecological or climatic features of the area where it was originally spoken," says Maddieson. They did not involve languages that are spoken by more than 5 million people such as Mandarin, Spanish and English because it was hard to define how widespread languages were related to their specific environments.
The transmission of spoken words may have been optimized depending on the setting in which the speaker lived. These include locations such as mountains, open savannahs or tropical forests. Geographical factors such as temperature and average levels of rainfall were also taken into account. Researchers explain that these factors can change the propagation of sound waves through the air.
For instance, all through Southeast Asia and several Pacific isles, researchers noticed that spoken words are made up of more vowels than consonants. The words are also spoken in syllables containing a vowel sound, and one or more consonants.
In the Caucasian Mountains, however, the language Georgian is filled with consonants and complex syllables that make it hard for foreigners to mimic. Researchers say that the environments in Southeast Asia and the Caucasian Mountains are also as varied as the corresponding languages that natives use.
When a person speaks, sound waves produced by the larynx and the different aritculators in the mouth travel to the listener. Researchers say that phonetic sounds such as t, f, or p are high-frequency consonant sounds while e, o, and u are low-frequency vowel sounds.
Sound waves can reflect on rough terrain or dense vegetation and bounce off to another direction. Scientists say because of this, part of the sound may get lost in transmission or get distorted. High-frequency sounds are more likely to get distorted, and that is why languages spoken in tropical areas are inclined to use fewer consonants and more vowels.
The theory of acoustic adaptation was first observed by a biologist named E.S. Morton in 1975. He noticed that in areas with woodland trees, birds are likely to sing with lower frequencies and less variation compared to birds in open areas.
"The highest notes and the range of notes are lower in forested kinds of environments compared to open environments in birdsong," says Maddieson.
Some studies even revealed that birds adapt to noise in rural areas. "This is really more what we're talking about with humans. The same species adapting to their environment," he added.
Meanwhile, Maddieson and Coupé are planning to study recordings of several spoken languages and look into how frequent consonants are used in everyday speech.