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Study shows correlation between language and altitude

Spread throughout the animal kingdom, squawks, roars, chirps and many other unusual sounds fill the planet with life. In some way or another, all social animals communicate with each other instinctively. On the other hand, humans are the only species that communicate by organizational sounds, meanings and gestures on a rational basis.

There are a little less than 7,000 languages spoken throughout the world, and just recently, an anthropologist at the University of Miami may have found a correlation between altitude and how a language is spoken. Published in in the June 12 edition of PLOS ONE, associate professor of anthropology Caleb Everett found that while studying about 600 languages throughout the world, languages that include ejective consonants are mainly spoken at higher altitudes.

“Ejectives are produced by creating a pocket of air in the pharynx then compressing it.” Everett said. “Since air pressure decreases with altitude and it takes less effort to compress less dense air, I speculate that it’s easier to produce these sounds at high altitude.”

This specific type of language structure is a non-English phoneme, and is only found in about 20 percent of the regions around the world. With help from the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures (a large database of structural language properties), Everett was able to coordinate the different language structures with geographical locations. According to the research, about 87 percent of the 600 languages studied that were found to contain ejective constants in their language were located within 500 km of high elevation points throughout the world. An area can be classified as a high elevation region if it exceeds 1500m above sea level.

“I was really surprised when I looked at the data and saw that it correlated so well,” Everett says. “It really does not rely very much on my interpretation, the evidence of a relationship between altitude and language is there.”

While Everett concluded that the lower air pressure made it easier to produce the burst of air effect that relates to ejective consonants, he did not find this to be the case in all regions. In fact, the only high-altitude region where he found ejective constants missing from the native language was in the Tibetan Plateau. He speculates that due to the extremely high elevation, the people of the region have developed distinct adaptation characteristics that do not include ejective consonants in their communication. The study also suggests that by reducing the amount of air that is exhaled from the lungs, this helps to decrease dehydration in higher altitudes.

As interesting as the language pattern is, Everett plans on extending his research—looking for other possible connections between language and geographic locations around the world.

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