New research suggests that there could be some method to the apparent madness of how different languages form. The key may lie in the environment in which they are spoken. This is according to a study conducted by researchers at the University of New Mexico and Laboratoire Dynamique du Langage-CNRS in France, which was presented at the 170th meeting of the Acoustical Society of America (ASA) last week.
The team, led by the University of New Mexico’s Ian Maddieson, examined a total of 628 languages around the globe. They looked at the prevalence of vowels and consonants in each, and cross-referenced this against the climatic and environmental conditions in which they are spoken. In doing so, they found a relationship between the ways in which sounds and syllables are used, and average yearly temperature, rainfall, degree of tree cover and “mountain-ness” of the area in which they are traditionally spoken.
According to a statement put out by the researchers, these findings suggest that so-called acoustic adaptation could, in part, explain the evolution of different languages around the world. This notion refers to the ways in which species alter their vocal communication in order to maximize sound transmission in their particular environment. For instance, consonants, which are characterized by high frequencies, are more easily distorted in forested areas, since these soundwaves may be deflected by the vegetation. Equally, high temperatures can cause the air to ripple, thereby disrupting the path of soundwaves and making consonants harder to hear.
Consequently, the team found that languages originating in warm areas with dense tree cover tended to use less consonants, and were instead characterized by a higher prevalence of vowel sounds, which are transmitted at lower frequencies. In total, it is thought that acoustic adaptation may be responsible for about a quarter of the variation in vowel and consonant use between languages.
While this obviously leaves a great deal of room for other influencing factors, it may go some way towards explaining the enormous differences between languages around the world. For example, !Xóõ, which is spoken in parts of Botswana and Namibia, uses more vowels than any other language and is also famous for its clicking sounds. At the other end of the spectrum, the now-extinct Ubyx language had only two vowels but 81 consonants.
Previously, the concept of acoustic adaptation had been applied to songbirds, which were found to alter the frequencies of their songs depending on the level of vegetation in their habitat. By applying the theory to human language, the team believes they have shed new light on how intelligible systems of communication emerged from the grunts and generic vocalizations humans are capable of making.