Did The Language You Speak Evolve Because Of The Heat?

GEOGRAPHY

English bursts with consonants. (Cumberbatch!) But other languages, such as Hawaiian, keep more vowels and open sounds. (Kahanamoku!) And that variability might be because they evolved in different habitats. (NPR)

Use our resources to take a look at some of the oldest surviving words in any language.

Teachers, scroll down for a short list of key resources in our Teachers’ Toolkit.

This fantastic map from NPR shows the distribution of consonant-heavy languages throughout the world. Compare it to our MapMaker Interactive maps of climate and land cover—see any correlations? Map by Alyson Hurt/NPR Source: Analysis by Ian Maddieson (Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico) and Christophe Coupé (Laboratoire Dynamique de Langage, CNRS-Université Lyon-2)

This fantastic map from NPR shows the distribution of consonant-heavy languages throughout the world. Compare it to our MapMaker Interactive maps of climate and land cover—see any correlations?
Map by Alyson Hurt/NPR
Source: Analysis by Ian Maddieson (Department of Linguistics, University of New Mexico) and Christophe Coupé (Laboratoire Dynamique de Langage, CNRS-Université Lyon-2)

Discussion Ideas

  • According to new theories described in the NPR article, how might landscape have influenced the evolution of language?
    • Consonant-heavy syllables don’t carry very well in places like windy mountain ranges or dense rainforests, researchers say. ‘If you have a lot of tree cover, for example, [sound] will reflect off the surface of leaves and trunks. That will break up the coherence of the transmitted sound.’”

 

  • How might climate have influenced the evolution of language?
    • “Sunny days create pockets of warm air that can punch into a sound wave. ‘You disrupt the way it was originally produced, and it becomes much harder to recognize what sound it was.’”

 

  • The research focused on the frequency of consonants in an indigenous language. What are some examples of consonant-heavy (Cumberbatch!) and vowel-heavy (Kahanamoku!) words?

 

  • ACTIVITY TIME! Do some super-fun field work! Make a list of some consonant-heavy and vowel-heavy words.
    • Try communicating the words, and think about how they’re used:
      • Talk across a table or a classroom
      • Whisper to a neighbor. When would community members not want everyone to hear what they’re saying?
      • Shout across a playground (make sure you have permission first!). When would community members need to quickly communicate across long distances or want everyone to know what they’re saying?
      • Sing! Why do you think chants, yodels, hymns, poems, and songs are so important to so many cultures? (Watch those videos, they’re all great. Can you think of some more examples of singing as part of a community?)
    • Vary your geography:
      • Elevation. (Try speaking from the floor to the roof, or from the top of playground equipment to the bottom). What are some natural or artifical landscapes with different elevations? Why would community members need to communicate across these landscapes?
      • Landscapes (Try comparing the differences between communicating in twisting hallways and open sports fields, for instance). What are some regions with dense or sparse vegetation? Why would community members need to communicate across these landscapes?
      • Voices. Are higher-pitched or lower-pitched voices, or louder or softer voices, more effective in different situations or geographies?
      • Weather. How does weather ease or complicate communication?
    • Which types of words are easiest to communicate in each setting?
    • Does your field work turn into a game of telephone, where words are misunderstood?

 

  • According to NPR, the new linguistic study researched more than 600 languages around the world. However, the study did not include Chinese, Spanish, and English—languages spoken by more than a billion people worldwide. Why do you think the study had these big linguistic gaps?

 

  • Could animal “languages” be influenced by the environment?
    • Yes. The phenomenon is called “acoustic adaptation.” According to Science, “Birds such as the song sparrow, for example, sing at higher pitches in cities, where lower-frequency notes would be drowned out by urban noise. And birds living in forested areas tend to sing at lower frequencies than birds living in open spaces, suggesting different species and populations may optimize their vocalizations to travel through branches and other obstacles that deflect high-frequency sounds.”
    • According to a linguist quoted by NPR, “Say you’re a bird in a forest, and some guy’s going ‘Stree! Stree! Stree!’ But because of the environment, what you hear is ‘Ree! Ree! Ree! Well, because you’re learning the song, you’ll sing ‘Ree! Ree! Ree!”

 

  • What other factors may have influenced the evolution of different languages?
    • Human history—proximity, migration, interaction with other cultures—definitely influences language. (Check out this great series for an example of the language you’re reading right now.) According to NPR, “People who live nearby are usually related, so their languages could be too. Hawaiian and Maori [for instance] are light on consonants and developed in hot, tropical climates, but they also both came from an ancestor Eastern Polynesian language.” That ancestor language may have contributed more to the development of Hawaiian and Maori than the physical geography or climate of Hawaii or New Zealand.

 

TEACHERS’ TOOLKIT

NPR: Did The Language You Speak Evolve Because Of The Heat?

Science: Human language may be shaped by climate and terrain

Nat Geo: Climate Zones map

Nat Geo: Land Cover map

4 responses to “Did The Language You Speak Evolve Because Of The Heat?

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  3. Pingback: Did The Language You Speak Evolve Because Of The Heat? – Welcome to the World of Ekasringa Avatar!·

  4. Pingback: Australians Spent 50,000 Years Isolated from the Rest of Us | Nat Geo Education Blog·

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