Trees, Rainfall and Consonants: On Language and Environment
From November 14 - 24th a series of lectures on 'Diversity and Uniformity in Linguistic Sound Systems' by Ian Maddieson, Adjunct Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, Adjunct Professor Emeritus at the University of California was held at the HSE School of Linguistics. The course was dedicated to the phonetic diversity of languages and includes eight lectures. During the series, Professor Maddieson has talked to HSE News Service about his research into the relations between language and environment.
— You've devoted your whole life to research of the world's languages. You’ve published many books and articles. One of the latest research projects under your leadership involved 628 languages around the globe. Could you please share the most striking result of it? And please tell us what is the connection between the languages and the environment where they are spoken?
— This work, undertaken in collaboration with my colleague Christophe Coupé, indicates that languages spoken where there is more rainfall annually (and therefore more trees growing) and where the temperatures are warmer tend to have a smaller number of different consonant sounds and allow fewer consonants to cluster together at the beginnings and ends of syllables (as is allowed in Russian in a word like страсть [strast’]). We think this is because forest environments and warmer air interfere with the faithful transmission of sounds that involve more rapid changes or depend on higher-pitched elements for their identification. In speech these sounds are typically the consonants.
— Are there mechanisms and methods to improve the structure of sound systems which depend on socio-cultural, genetic factors and even climate and environment?
— I don’t like this question because it suggests that we should be looking at language adaptation as improvement or its opposite. Evolutionary processes work in a an unguided way: they happen because it is not possible for them not to happen. However, it does look as if there is a connection between human language structure and the environment in which the language is spoken, as our work shows. Other researchers have suggested that languages with complex tone systems, such as Chinese, are more likely to evolve in colder areas of the world, and that languages with ejectives (these sounds are called ‘abruptive’ in Russian) are more likely to occur in language spoken at higher altitudes. Both these ideas stem from thinking that differences in the temperature and density of the surrounding air will help or hinder the use of certain kinds of speech sounds.
The important thing in any communication is always to focus on the meaning of what is being said and not on the way it is being said
Other research has indicated that social factors may be related to the characteristics of a language. For example, the size of the population that speaks a particular language is to some degree related to the number of consonants and vowels that is distinguished in that language. In general, languages with larger populations use more distinct vowels and consonants than those with smaller populations. There may also be some influence of human genetic factors on language properties. The shape of the palate forming the roof of the mouth, which is under genetic control, may influence the kind of consonants that are produced by tongue movements in the front of the mouth, and the presence of newer variants of certain genes that influence the development of the brain may assist in the creation of languages that use tone. These kinds of research are relatively recent in linguistics and show exciting promise for the future. However, it should still be recognised that most characteristics of languages are handed down from generation to generation without a great amount of change.
— You were born and raised in UK where the difference between languages spoken in different social environment was described at the beginning of the 20th century in Pygmalion by Bernard Shaw. What are your personal rules of listening and communicating with people from different social strata, education level and etc.?
— Linguistic prejudice, that is judging someone by the way they speak, is unfortunately a common human failing. Bernard Shaw highlighted this is in his play Pygmalion. The character of Professor Henry Higgins in the play is probably based on Daniel Jones, a famous professor of phonetics in London at the time. I was educated in phonetics by professors who had themselves been educated by Jones. Jones and his students and his students’ students surely recognised that linguistic prejudice has no basis in reason, yet is a social reality that has to be taken into account in practical life. The important thing in any communication is always to focus on the meaning of what is being said and not on the way it is being said.
A major challenge for linguists today is to attempt to document and record the languages before they die, and, where possible, to work to revitalisethe languages and keep them alive
— What are the challenges for linguists now?
— We are living in a time of unprecedented language death. Most of the languages spoken by small groups of speakers are not being passed on to the younger generations and these languages are dying out. This is happening in all parts of the world but particularly where a dominant world language like English, Chinese, Russian or Spanish is spoken in the larger society which surrounds the small-population language. A major challenge for linguists today is to attempt to document and record these languages before they die, and — where possible — to work to revitalise the languages and keep them alive. Intellectually, we cannot understand the diversity of human language unless we know as much as possible about each of the individual languages that survives today. Morally, we have a duty to work to sustain the languages of local societies since these are dear to those communities.
— How did your cooperation with HSE start? What are your first impressions on presenting lectures and communicating with Russian audience?
— I was fortunate to be part of one of the linguistic field research projects in Dagestan led by Alexander Kibrik of Moscow State University. This was 18 years ago, but it was during that trip that I met Michael Daniel, now a professor at HSE in the Department of Theoretical and Computational Linguistics. About a year ago Misha asked if I would be interested to come to Moscow and present a series of lectures at HSE and I said yes. We had some problems turning this plan into reality but I am here now.
I have been giving my lecture in English as I have only a very limited ability to speak Russian, but I feel that I have been able to engage the interest of my audience.
— What are your next research plans? Is Russian language somehow involved in your research interests?
— I have many future plans. One is to look at spoken language data recordings to see if the environmental factors we have suggested as affecting the number of consonants in a language also predicts how often consonants appear in the regular stream of speech. Russian would surely be one of the languages involved in this project. I am also interested in doing more work on possible relationships between the number of consonants and vowels that are distinguished in a language and the length of words in that language. Russian will also be one of the languages included in this study.
Anna Chernyakhovskaya, specially for HSE News service
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