The Speaking Style of Some Languages May Help Spread COVID-19

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There are many things we still don’t know about how the coronavirus is spread and how long the pandemic will last. Researchers and medical experts are gathering and analyzing as much data as possible in order to create safe economic reopening plans, find medications to help those who have contracted the virus, and get the most accurate information about the virus out to people around the world.

We do know that the coronavirus can be spread from person to person quite easily. Countries like China, Italy, and Spain saw high rates of infection in the early months of the pandemic, while countries like the United States, Sweden, and India have seen their case numbers rise as the months go on. 

Linking COVID Infection Rates to Language

A recent article published in the journal Medical Hypotheses postulates that the way people speak certain languages may contribute to the spread of the virus. Languages with higher numbers of aspirated consonants, like the letters PT, and K in English, allow for the spread of more particles from the speakers’ mouths. 

Researchers hypothesize that languages with higher numbers of aspirated consonants, like the letters P, T, and K in English, allow for the spread of more particles from the speakers’ mouths.  Image: RUDN
Researchers hypothesize that languages with higher numbers of aspirated consonants, like the letters P, T, and K in English, allow for the spread of more particles from the speakers’ mouths. Figure: RUDN

The authors of the article, who are from Moscow’s RUDN University, looked at the relationship between language and the Covid-19 pandemic. They studied 26 different countries and the frequency of aspirated consonants used in each nation’s language. They found that Covid-19 cases were 20% higher in countries where a language with a higher number of aspirated consonants was spoken. 

The hypothesis that language can help the spread of a virus isn’t new- a study was published in the Lancet 17 years ago linking the SARS virus to languages with a greater frequency of aspirated consonants. That study showed a decrease in SARS in nations like Japan, where the language doesn’t use many aspirated consonants. 

Future Implications

Although language could play a role in spreading viruses like SARS and Covid-19, there are other factors that may be more influential in determining a country’s infection rate. An adherence to social distancing, widespread adoption of mask wearing, government mandated lockdown measures, and other factors may be more influential in determining the spread and scope of the virus.

This particular study may not have provided conclusive results, but the researchers hope that their study could help epidemiologists model the future spread of diseases more accurately in the months and years to come. 

The Study:

Georgiou, G. P., & Kilani, A. (2020). The Use of Aspirated Consonants during Speech may Increase the Transmission of COVID-19. Medical Hypotheses. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.mehy.2020.109937

Cohen, A. (2020, September 2). This common speaking method may be one reason why some countries have more COVID cases. Fast Company. https://www.fastcompany.com/90546387/this-common-speaking-method-may-be-one-reason-why-some-countries-have-more-covid-cases

RUDN University. (2020, August 30). Aspirated consonants may promote the spread of COVID-19, RUDN University linguist says. EurekAlert!. https://eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2020-08/ru-acm083020.php

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