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Front. Psychol. | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01285

Languages in drier climates use fewer vowels

  • 1Anthropology, University of Miami, United States

This study offers evidence for an environmental effect on languages while relying on continuous linguistic and continuous ecological variables. Evidence is presented for a positive association between the typical ambient humidity of a language’s native locale and that language’s degree of reliance on vowels. The vowel-usage rates of over 4000 language varieties were obtained, and several methods were employed to test whether these usage rates are associated with ambient humidity. The results of these methods are generally consistent with the notion that reduced ambient humidity eventually yields a reduced reliance of languages on vowels, when compared to consonants. The analysis controls simultaneously for linguistic phylogeny and contact between languages. The results dovetail with previous work, based on binned data, suggesting that consonantal phonemes are more common in some ecologies. In addition to being based on continuous data and a larger data sample, however, these findings are tied to experimental research suggesting that dry air affects the behavior of the larynx by yielding increased phonatory effort. The results of this study are also consistent with previous work suggesting an interaction of aridity and tonality. The data presented here suggest that languages may evolve, like the communication systems of other species, in ways that are influenced subtly by ecological factors. It is stressed that more work is required, however, to explore this association and to establish a causal relationship between ambient air characteristics and the development of languages.

Keywords: Phonetics, environment, Adaptation, Psychological, Language, evolution

Received: 24 Feb 2017; Accepted: 13 Jul 2017.

Edited by:

Antonio Benítez-Burraco, University of Huelva, Spain

Reviewed by:

Gary Lupyan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, United States
Dan Dediu, Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics (MPG), Netherlands  

Copyright: © 2017 Everett. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (CC BY). The use, distribution or reproduction in other forums is permitted, provided the original author(s) or licensor are credited and that the original publication in this journal is cited, in accordance with accepted academic practice. No use, distribution or reproduction is permitted which does not comply with these terms.

* Correspondence: Prof. Caleb Everett, University of Miami, Anthropology, Coral Gables, United States, caleb@miami.edu