Sarah Dolan

Affected by Altitude: Linguists Locate Language Link

Sarah Dolan

How language evolved is a question that has puzzled scientists and sociologists for decades. It is generally accepted that groups of ancient people who shared a language and culture would split up into smaller tribes in search of fresh land. Over time these smaller tribes would change, with outside influences causing them to develop different languages. However, a new study shows that migration patterns may not be the only influence affecting language.

A study lead by Dr. Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami, suggests that altitude affects the phonological form of a language. The study found that languages with ejective consonant sounds occur more often in areas of high elevations. Ejective sounds are found in around 18 percent of the world’s languages. They are produced by compressing air in the pharynx and releasing it in a burst of sound that has a clicking quality to it. These sounds are not found in the English language—the closest English equivalent would be a “k” sound made high in the back of the throat. You can listen to Everett give examples of ejective consonants here.

The study found that languages containing ejective sounds are spoken in five of the world’s six high-altitude regions. These five areas, all 4,900 feet or more above sea level, include the North American Cordillera; the Andes and the Altiplano; the southern African plateau; the plateau of the East African Rift and the Ethiopian Highlands; and the Caucasus range and Javakheti Plateau. Noticeably absent from this list is the Tibetan Plateau. Everett admits that he doesn’t know why ejective consonants don’t appear there, although he had expected the sounds to be absent in several areas instead of only one.

As for why these sounds appear, Everett has several theories. One is that ejectives are easier to pronounce in high-altitude areas because of the lower air pressure—it takes less effort to compress the thinner air. A second theory is that these sounds may reduce water vapor loss through air expelled during speech. This is hardly trivial, as water retention is crucial to survival in high elevations.

This study sheds further light on how modern languages evolved. In addition to social influences, geographic influences also played a role. These languages, located thousands of miles apart from one another, evolved separately but share this common feature. Altitude is what binds them together.

Did You Know?
The International Phonetic Alphabet, or IPA, was created in 1886 and was last updated in 2005. Consisting of 107 letters and 56 marks used in linguistics, the alphabet represents every distinct sound that exists in spoken language. The IPA can be used to phonetically represent all languages on earth!

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