Language Development and Geography

Elizabeth Borneman


The evolution of language is a puzzle that has intrigued and confounded linguists for years. The path languages take as they grow and evolve around the world brings new insights into the history of the human race and can answer some very important questions about how we evolved.

Does climate affect language development?

New linguistics research has just come out which explores the relationship between location and language development, shedding light onto some previously unexplored territory.

Researchers around the world are pooling their resources and knowledge to find out how climate affects language development. They are looking into how climate, such as rainforests or deserts, affect what languages are spoken there and what those languages sound like.

For instance, languages that develop in hot, humid locations are more likely to utilize consonants less, while languages that exist in a more temperate, flat landscape may be more consonant-heavy.

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Consonant heavy and high frequency language less likely to develop in windy or mountainous places

English is a language that is full of consonants and high frequency noises.

These noises are less likely to be heard in places that have a lot of trees or are mountainous and windy. In these areas sounds bounce off the mountains and trees or will be carried away by the wind, so what the other person hears can be very different from what was actually said.

Related: How Topography Affects Language

Vowels more easily heard in dense forests or rocky hills

Vowels like “e” or “a” are more easily heard in dense rainforests or through rocky hills. Additionally, in hot climates vowels are better understood because warm air can disrupt some consonants and higher frequency sounds.

The linguists’ theories, therefore, ride on the idea that language is developing in certain climates to make it easier to understand and communicate with one another by the people who live there.

The researchers are basing this line of inquiry into human language development on similar studies that have been conducted on birds.

Scientists have researched the way different species of birds sing in different climates and found that birds living in rain forests sing songs with fewer audible consonants than their counterparts in more flat or open places.

Exceptions to this linguistic theory

This linguistic theory hasn’t been entirely validated, however.

Other influences for language development include the close relationship between people groups who speak the same (or similar) languages and the geographical path language has taken around the world over thousands of years.

For instance, the Hawaiian language developed in a hot and lush climate, as did the Maori language in New Zealand; both these languages are also related to an older Eastern Polynesian language.

Nature certainly has a major effect on language development in humans, but the extent of this influence is still yet to be discovered in its entirety. Linguists will continue to work on the origin and evolution of the world’s languages as they relate to people groups, geography, and climate.

The study

Maddieson, I., & Coupé, C. (2015). Human spoken language diversity and the acoustic adaptation hypothesisThe Journal of the Acoustical Society of America138(3), 1838-1838.

Chen, A. (2015, November 6) Did The Language You Speak Evolve Because Of The Heat?

Map of Where Gender Pronouns Don’t Exist

A screenshot of a mapping application of where pronouns exist in that language.

About 68% of the world’s languages sampled in an interactive available from the World Atlas of Language Structures don’t have a gender specific pronouns.  254 of the 378 mapped languages in the interactive map don’t use “he” or “she” but instead used a gender neutral pronoun when referring to persons.

Only about 30% of the sample languages used gender specific pronouns.  The greatest concentration of languages with gender in personal pronouns is found in Africa.  According to linguist Siewierska (1955 – 2011), the other major geographic area where gender in personal pronouns is common is Eurasia and especially Europe.

Visit: Gender Distinctions in Independent Personal Pronouns

The study

Anna Siewierska. 2013. Gender Distinctions in Independent Personal Pronouns.  In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.)

The World Atlas of Language Structures Online.  Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.   Accessed on 2014-10-12.

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.