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Climate Linked to Human Language?

Jan 23, 2015 06:18 PM EST
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Researchers may have finally helped solve a long-standing question among linguists, finding in a new study that climate is linked to the evolution of human language.
(Photo : Galyna Andrushko / Fotolia)

Researchers may have finally helped solve a long-standing question among linguists, finding in a new study that climate is linked to the evolution of human language.

In order to reach this conclusion, the researchers had to discover an association between the environment and vocal sounds that is consistent throughout the world, and present in different languages.

They found their answer by focusing on tone or pitch, which are present in languages worldwide and give words their meaning. The research team, from the University of Miami, examined more than 3,700 languages and found 629 languages with complex tones - those that use three or more tones for sound contrast.

It turns out that languages with complex tones are much more likely to occur in humid or tropical regions of the world, such as throughout Africa and Southeast Asia, and also in parts of North America, Amazonia and New Guinea. Meanwhile, languages with simple tones occur more frequently in areas that are frigid or dry.

"In my estimation, it changes a bit our understanding of how languages evolve," linguist Caleb Everett said in a press release. "It does not imply that languages are completely determined by climate, but that climate can, over the long haul, be one of the factors that helps shape languages."

Everett also suggests that because of climate, humans living in harsh environments especially have learned to adapt and evolve their language.

For example, inhaling dry air causes laryngeal dehydration and decreases vocal fold elasticity. So it's probably more difficult to achieve complex tones in arid climates, particularly very cold ones, compared to warmer and more humid climates.

"Also, there may be some health benefits to certain sound patterns in certain climates, but more research is needed to establish that in a satisfactory way," Everett added.

The findings were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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