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Journal Article

Language evolution and climate: The case of desiccation and tone


Roberts,  Sean G.
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;
INTERACT, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Everett, C., Blasi, D. E., & Roberts, S. G. (2016). Language evolution and climate: The case of desiccation and tone. Journal of Language Evolution, 1, 33-46. doi:10.1093/jole/lzv004.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002A-09C2-3
We make the case that, contra standard assumption in linguistic theory, the sound systems of human languages are adapted to their environment. While not conclusive, this plausible case rests on several points discussed in this work: First, human behavior is generally adaptive and the assumption that this characteristic does not extend to linguistic structure is empirically unsubstantiated. Second, animal communication systems are well known to be adaptive within species across a variety of phyla and taxa. Third, research in laryngology demonstrates clearly that ambient desiccation impacts the performance of the human vocal cords. The latter point motivates a clear, testable hypothesis with respect to the synchronic global distribution of language types. Fourth, this hypothesis is supported in our own previous work, and here we discuss new approaches being developed to further explore the hypothesis. We conclude by suggesting that the time has come to more substantively examine the possibility that linguistic sound systems are adapted to their physical ecology