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Altitude Affects the Way Language is Spoken, Study Suggests

Jun 13, 2013 01:55 AM EDT
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Throughout the animal kingdom communication takes different shapes and form. However, humans are essentially the only representatives of the animal order of life that communicate through organized sounds, meanings and gestures on rational basis. There are roughly about 7,000 spoken languages on Earth today.

Caleb Everett, an Anthropologist at the University of Miami took upon himself to analyze the correlation between languages and the altitude. He picked 600 languages spoken in different regions of the globe; languages that include ejective consonants are mainly spoken at higher altitudes.

"Ejectives are produced by creating a pocket of air in the pharynx then compressing it." Everett explained. "Since air pressure decreases with altitude and it takes less effort to compress less dense air, I speculate that it's easier to produce these sounds at high altitude."

According to Everett, this specific type of language structure is a non-English phoneme, and is only found in about 20 percent of the regions around the world. Using the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (a large database of structural language properties), Everett was able to coordinate the different language structures with geographical locations.

His conclusion: about 87 percent of the 600 languages studied that were found to contain ejective constants in their language were located within 500 km of high elevation points throughout the world. An area can be classified as a high elevation region if it exceeds 1500m above sea level.

"I was really surprised when I looked at the data and saw that it correlated so well," Everett said. "It really does not rely very much on my interpretation, the evidence of a relationship between altitude and language is there."

Although Everett found that the lower air pressure made it easier to produce the burst of air effect that relates to ejective consonants, he did not find this to be the case in all regions.

Everett now has in sight extending his research-looking for other possible connections between language and geographic locations around the world.

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