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Does altitude affect the way language is spoken?

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Posted June 13, 2013

Plot of the locations of the languages in the sample. Dark circles represent languages with ejectives, clear circles represent those without ejectives. Clusters of languages with ejectives are highlighted with white rectangles. For illustrative purposes only. Inset: Lat-long plot of polygons exceeding 1500 m in elevation. Adapted from Figure 4 in [8]. The six major inhabitable areas of high elevation are highlighted via ellipses: (1) North American cordillera (2) Andes (3) Southern African plateau (4) East African rift (5) Caucasus and Javakheti plateau (6) Tibetan plateau and adjacent regions. Credit: Caleb Everett, University of Miami

Plot of the locations of the languages in the sample. Dark circles represent languages with ejectives, clear circles represent those without ejectives. Clusters of languages with ejectives are highlighted with white rectangles. For illustrative purposes only. Inset: Lat-long plot of polygons exceeding 1500 m in elevation. Adapted from Figure 4 in [8]. The six major inhabitable areas of high elevation are highlighted via ellipses: (1) North American cordillera (2) Andes (3) Southern African plateau (4) East African rift (5) Caucasus and Javakheti plateau (6) Tibetan plateau and adjacent regions. Credit: Caleb Everett, University of Miami

Language is formed by giving meaning to sounds and stringing together these meaningful expressions to communicate feelings and ideas. Until recently most linguists believed that the relationship between the structure of language and the natural world was mainly the influence of the environment on vocabulary. Now, a new study published in the June 12 edition of PLOS ONE shows that there is a link between geographical elevation and the way language is spoken.

The study reveals that languages containing ejective consonants are spoken mainly in regions of high elevation. Ejectives are sounds produced with an intensive burst of air, and are not found in the English language.

The findings show that 87 percent of the languages with ejectives included in the study are located within 500 km of a region of high elevation on all continents. The findings also indicate that as elevation increases, so does the likelihood of languages with ejectives.

“This is really strong evidence that geography does influence phonology—the sound system of languages,” says Caleb Everett, associate professor of anthropology, in the College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Miami and author of the study. The study is titled “Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The case of ejectives.”

An area of high elevation is defined as exceeding 1500m above sea level. Most of the inhabitable high altitude areas of the world are found in six regions, including the North American Cordillera; the Andes and the Andean altiplano; the southern African plateau; the plateau of the east African rift and the Ethiopian highlands; the Caucasus range and Javakheti plateau; and the Tibetan plateau and surrounding plateaus.

Read more at: Phys.org

 

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