Geographic context may have shaped sounds of different languages

June 13, 2013

The sounds of different languages may have been shaped by the geography of the places where they are spoken, according to research published June 5 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Caleb Everett from the University of Miami.

Everett compared the sounds used in about 600 languages across the world with the regions they were commonly spoken, and found a strong correlation between high altitude and spoken languages that included consonant sounds produced with an intense burst of air, called ejective consonants. Ejectives are absent in the English language, but were found in languages spoken on, or near, five out of six major high altitude regions where people live. The artificial Na’vi language spoken in the movie Avatar also uses ejective consonants. The relationship is difficult to explain by other factors, says the author.

“This is evidence that geography does influence phonology – the sound system of languages,” explains Everett. “Ejectives are produced by creating a pocket of air in the pharynx then compressing it. 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. The results of the study suggest that ecological factors may shape the structure of language in ways that have gone unrecognized.”

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Citation: Everett C (2013) Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives. PLOS ONE 8(6): e65275. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0065275

Financial Disclosure: This research was funded by salary from the University of Miami. The funder had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.

Competing Interest Statement: The author has declared that no competing interests exist.

PLEASE LINK TO THE SCIENTIFIC ARTICLE IN ONLINE VERSIONS OF YOUR REPORT (URL goes live after the embargo ends): http://dx.plos.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0065275

Disclaimer: This press release refers to upcoming articles in PLOS ONE. The releases have been provided by the article authors and/or journal staff. Any opinions expressed in these are the personal views of the contributors, and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of PLOS. PLOS expressly disclaims any and all warranties and liability in connection with the information found in the release and article and your use of such information.

About PLOS ONEPLOS ONE is the first journal of primary research from all areas of science to employ a combination of peer review and post-publication rating and commenting, to maximize the impact of every report it publishes. PLOS ONE is published by the Public Library of Science (PLOS), the open-access publisher whose goal is to make the world’s scientific and medical literature a public resource.

Contact: Jyoti Madhusoodanan
jmadhusoodanan@plos.org
415-568-4545
Public Library of Science


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