Environmental factors behind linguistic diversity, says study


It is a known fact that the gradual evolution of human biology involves the anatomy, physiology and functions of the body. However, recent findings of an international research organisation suggested that distinctions in human linguistic evolution are also a result of the adaptation to local ecological conditions.

Most of our human features are found in other species as well, even if they are rudimentary in nature. But what sets us apart is our rich and productive human language. The evolution of human speech represents a quantum leap in the assembly of Eukaryote cell. A Eukaryote refers to any organism whose cells contain a nucleus and other organelles enclosed within a membrane.

A study took place to examine the relationship between sound structures with worldwide samples of human languages and climatic and ecological factors including temperature, precipitation, vegetation and geomorphology.

The results indicate a correlation between ecological factors and the ratio of resonance that are responsible for linguistic diversity. This resonating sound is produced by the uninterrupted airflow in the examined languages.

This points out that species adapt their acoustic signals to optimize sound transmission in the environment they live in. These acoustic signals finally turn into human languages.

“We find that the number of distinct sounds and the degree to which consonants cluster together in syllables correlate with mean annual precipitation, mean annual temperature, degree of tree cover and the geographic elevation of the area in which they are traditionally spoken,” Ian Maddieson, the primary researcher and adjunct professor in the Department of Linguistics at the University of New Mexico, was quoted as saying.

“Both the number of distinct consonants and their distribution in syllabic structures are lower where tree cover and temperature are higher,” he added.

This is why people living in areas of abundant tree cover tend to have a less consonant-heavy language as compared to people living in an environment where higher frequencies are less realistically transmitted, leading people to favour the use of low-frequency sounds, or loud sounds.

Putting this in a context of the Indian demography, it, very interestingly, clarifies the reason behind the extreme linguistic diversity in the acoustics of Indian languages.

It is striking that in this comparatively small geographical area, we have such phonetic extremes and vast linguistic diversity. For instance, Hindi and Kannada have an entirely different sound catalogue.

Even though Indian languages are majorly divided into just two language families of Indo-Aryan languages and Dravidian languages, we have phonetics changing from city to city due to the contribution of our diverse geography.

People in the Himalayan states such as Jammu & Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are softer in their tone while the astringent tone is used in Punjab and Haryana. The Dravidian languages, which include Kannada, Telugu, Tamil, and Malayalam, are mostly limited to southern India and uses a combination of mild and unusual sounds.

These differences can very evidently be seen in the exceptionally diverse musical tones of India. Thus, we need to maintain this environmental balance which has gifted India with not only geographical diversity but also acoustic diversity.

“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard,” Sun Tzu rightly said in The Art of War.

This is exactly what India represents– an archipelago of phonetics. We have hundreds of dialects and a thousand acoustic ways to express them.