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Elevation's influence on Language

“[T]he geographic context in which a language is spoken may directly impact its phonological form” according to Caleb Everett in research published last year in PLOS One. “We examined the geographic coordinates and elevations of 567 language locations represented in a worldwide phonetic database. Languages with phonemic ejective consonants were found to occur closer to inhabitable regions of high elevation, when contrasted to languages without this class of sounds. In addition, the mean and median elevations of the locations of languages with ejectives were found to be comparatively high. The patterns uncovered surface on all major world landmasses, and are not the result of the influence of particular language families. They reflect a significant and positive worldwide correlation between elevation and the likelihood that a language employs ejective phonemes. In addition to documenting this correlation in detail, we offer two plausible motivations for its existence. We suggest that ejective sounds might be facilitated at higher elevations due to the associated decrease in ambient air pressure, which reduces the physiological effort required for the compression of air in the pharyngeal cavity–a unique articulatory component of ejective sounds. In addition, we hypothesize that ejective sounds may help to mitigate rates of water vapor loss through exhaled air. These explications demonstrate how a reduction of ambient air density could promote the usage of ejective phonemes in a given language. Our results reveal the direct influence of a geographic factor on the basic sound inventories of human languages.”

In other words, human behaviors evolve according to environmental pressures, just like other organisms’ behaviors. Human behaviors are affected by their environmental conditions, not just in individual development but with cumulative consequences over multiple generations. Social scientists who deem that the behavior of human groups takes place in a vacuum are missing critical data!

Everett C (2013) Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives. PLoS ONE 8(6): e65275.

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