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
Now, a new study published in the PLOS ONE shows that there is a link between geographical elevation
and the way language is spoken.
Elevation linked to ejectives
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
The findings show that 87% of the languages with ejectives
included in the study are located within 500km 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
An area of high elevation is defined as exceeding 1 500m
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.
600 languages analysed
For this project, Everett analysed the locations of about
600 representative languages, of the 7 000 or so languages of the world. Ninety
two of this sample had ejectives. He utilised the World Atlas of Linguistic
Structures—the most comprehensive survey of linguistic sounds. Everett imported
the coordinates of these languages into the geographic software of Google Earth
and ArcGIS v. 10.0, then superimposed the locations of these sound systems on
the world's landscape to analyse the patterns.
The results show a strong correlation between high altitude
and the presence of ejectives in languages on, or near, five of the six major
high altitude regions on earth where people live. The relationship is difficult
to explain by other factors, according to Everett.
"I was really surprised when I looked at the data and
saw that it correlated so well," Everett says. "It really does not
rely very much on my interpretation, the evidence of a relationship between
altitude and language is there."
According to the results, the only region with high
elevation where languages with ejectives are absent is the large Tibetan
plateau and the adjacent areas. People of this region have a unique adaptation
to high altitude that may account for this fact.
"Ejectives are produced by creating a pocket of air in
the pharynx then compressing it." Everett says. "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."
Breathing at a faster rate
To make these sounds, the body uses air that is not
pulmonic, this may reduce the amount of air exhaled from the lungs and decrease
dehydration in high altitudes, the study suggests.
Previous studies have shown that Tibetan people breathe at a
faster rate than other high altitude populations. This is believed to be an
adaptation to the climate and results in a reduction of the effects of hypoxia
in high altitude.
The findings show an interesting pattern between elevation
and ejectives appearing on all major land masses and reflecting a positive
correlation between the two. Everett is now looking at other possible
connections between geography and the way language is spoken.