Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Cunning Linguistics & the Mountain of Tongues

Double entendres out the wazoo this morning, but the headline was merely tongue-in-cheek and a reference to the Caucuses, which earned that nickname ("Mountain of Tongues") by a 10th century Arab geographer for smattering of languages.  A fascinating piece in The Atlantic on the way that geography and altitude affects language:

Languages occurring in each zone, from the Caucasus to the Andes, were also from multiple, often unrelated language families. The Caucasian language Abkhaz contains ejectives, but so do several dialects of Armenian, a language from the entirely distinct Indo-European family. Such evidence, Everett says, goes far in arguing that geography, and not genetic relations, is behind the trend.
Explaining why such a correlation might exist is a more challenging proposition. Everett offers his best guesses, albeit tentatively.
"Hypothetically, these sounds should be easier to make at high altitudes because they require the compression of ambient air," Everett says. "Since air pressure is lower at higher altitudes, the sounds should be easier to make. That was my first hypothesis."

He also suggests that use of the sounds may be a biological adaption to the dryness of high-altitude locations. "Because you don't have to expel air from the lungs to produce ejective sounds, they should theoretically reduce the amount of water vapor lost during speech," he says.

No comments: