Our directory of things of interest

University Directory

Climate tones

Masai warriors of southern Kenya singing in a cultural ceremony Masai warriors of southern Kenya singing in a cultural ceremony Shutterstock
22 Mar
2015
Geography can change the way you speak, and not just through the use of jargon

New research from the University of Miami is showing that languages with complex tones – like Mandarin – tend to occur more often in humid regions, while languages with simple tones – like Swedish – occur in dry regions.

‘English is a non-tonal language which originates in a relatively dry part of the world. It’s in the top 15 per cent of the ‘driest’ languages. This fits with our hypothesis. It’s perfectly possible that the English language could adopt tones in areas that are now more humid, or as the climate changes,’ says Sean Roberts, who works on global differences in geophonetics. The research changes how language evolution is understood, with data drawn from over half the world’s tongues. ‘Broadly, this suggests another non-conscious way in which humans have adapted to their very different and harsh environments,’ says Caleb Everett, the lead researcher on the project. ‘Also, there may be some health benefits to certain sound patterns in certain climates, but more research is needed.’ Inhaling dry air may cause a speaker’s voice box to dehydrate, decreasing voice range.

‘There’s a hypothesis several anthropologists have put forward that languages in warmer climates such as Kenya tend to have higher rates of mouth opening,’ says Everett.

‘Languages do gain and lose tone, and can do so quite quickly. Ancient dialects of Chinese had no tone, and Korean is currently undergoing ‘tonogenesis’ (gaining tones),’ adds Roberts. At present, it’s very difficult to say whether very early languages had tone or not.

‘One of the things we’ll be researching next is whether languages gain or lose tone when entering or leaving dry climates,’ says Roberts. ‘This will involve reconstructing linguistic history using statistical methods. Effectively, this will also involve modelling climate change.’

This story was published in the March 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine

Related items

Geographical Week

Get the best of Geographical delivered straight to your inbox every Friday.

LATEST HEADLINES

Subscribe to Geographical!

University of Winchester

EDUCATION PARTNERS

Aberystwyth University University of Greenwich The University of Winchester

TRAVEL PARTNERS

Ponant

Silversea

Travel the Unknown

DOSSIERS

Like longer reads? Try our in-depth dossiers that provide a comprehensive view of each topic

  • The Human Game – Tackling football’s ‘slave trade’
    Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number one sport. But as Mark Rowe discovers, this global popularity is masking a sinister...
    Essential oil?
    Palm oil is omnipresent in global consumption. But in many circles it is considered the scourge of the natural world, for the deforestation and habita...
    National Clean Air Day
    For National Clean Air Day, Geographical brings together stories about air pollution and the kind of solutions needed to tackle it ...
    The Nuclear Power Struggle
    The UK appears to be embracing nuclear, a huge U-turn on government policy from just two years ago. Yet this seems to be going against the grain globa...
    The green dragon awakens
    China has achieved remarkable economic success following the principle of developing first and cleaning up later. But now the country with the world's...

MORE DOSSIERS

NEVER MISS A STORY - Follow Geographical on Social

Want to stay up to date with breaking Geographical stories? Join the thousands following us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram and stay informed about the world.

More articles in PEOPLE...

Explorers

From Calcutta to the Himalayas, in The Last Englishmen, author…

Development

As part of our monthly series of reports looking at…

Development

Using WhatsApp to monitor and predict deadly landslides in Colombian…

Explorers

During her time in Ghana, Sarah Begum experienced the lives…

Development

An investigation reveals how the illegal export of talc, used…

Cultures

Land rights for the indigenous are still a problem, but…

Development

New statistics suggest rising healthy lifespans in China, at the…

Cultures

The addition of traditional Māori names to Wellington’s urban landscape is…

Cultures

Native American communities in the US are devising their own…

Refugees

Calais’ continuing refugee crisis may not make daily headlines now…

I’m a Geographer

With fellow student Tom Micklethwait, Charles is travelling the route…

Development

As part of our monthly series of reports looking at…

Development

Few would argue with football’s position as the world’s number…

Explorers

For British cave divers, Chris Jewell and Jim Warny, who…

Cultures

Love it or hate it, there’s no denying that football…

Development

A German recycling scheme is proving to be a source…

Development

The Galápagos are often thought of as a unique natural…

Development

China’s ban on plastic imports will displace more than 110…

Cultures

If you think you can escape the ballyhoo of the…