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Environment & Language Evolution

December 3, 2015

Do environmental variables like rainfall and vegetation shape the sounds of languages?


Susanne Bard copyright

Hawaiian highlands. Rainfall, density of vegetation, and other environmental factors could account for some of the vowel and consonant differences between languages. (© Susanne Bard)


Vowels vs. consonants. I’m Bob Hirshon and this is Science Update.

Before the advent of modern telecommunications, our ancestors often needed to hear each other speak across considerable distances. But some speech sounds are more intelligible in certain environments than others. This has shaped languages over time, according to University of New Mexico linguist Ian Maddieson. He’s found, for example, that in warm, humid climates, you end up with languages like Hawaiian, which is rich in vowels but light on consonants.

(Hawaiian sentence)

IAN MADDIESON (University of New Mexico):

Where there’s more rainfall, where there’s more vegetation, these factors degrade the understandability of consonant sounds more severely than vowel sounds.


Maddieson says consonant-heavy languages tend to be the product of cooler, drier, less vegetated regions. He presented the findings at the meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. I’m Bob Hirshon, for AAAS, the science society.