As specialists in environmental translations we thought it only right for World Environment Day that we take a (very brief) look at some interesting research into how the environment influences language and linguistic development. Here are three of the main ways that we are all, ultimately, impacted and shaped by our geography:
Recent research by Maddieson and Coupé indicates that climate, vegetation and topography may have a significant but slow impact on the sound of languages. Until recently it has been very difficult to study in humans, but similar “acoustic adaptation” has been shown to exist with birds – the same species of bird will adapt its song to be higher pitched if it lives in an urban environment than in a rural environment.
The work by Maddieson and Coupé has shown that similarities exist between languages from regions with similar climates, even if separated by thousands of miles. There was a clear pattern: languages in hotter, more forested regions (like South East Asia) used lower frequency sounds and fewer distinct consonants, with words tending to favour more vowel sounds and simple syllables. On the other hand, languages in colder, drier and more mountainous regions were more consonant heavy (Georgian, for example, which gives us the word mtsvrt’neli, meaning “trainer”). Humidity and dense vegetation interfere with sound so the assumption is that languages in such areas have somehow adapted over time to be more easily audible to compensate.
One of the most obvious ways that the world around you guides the development of language is in some of the vocabulary you use. The influence by the climate is often easy to spot. It’s been said since the early 20th century that the Eskimo-Aleut languages include hundreds of words for snow, although today it’s generally accepted that they only have roughly as many root words referring to snow as English. Finnish is another language where extensive experience with winter has led to quite specific terminology (over 40 snow-related words by some counts), varying from very wet snow (loska), to snow found on the branch of a tree (tykky).
In Scotland, the same nuance appears, but with terminology relating to rain – from dreich (which means wet, dull, gloomy, dismal, and dreary) to stoating (raining so heavily that the drops of rain bounce off the ground). The Galician language, spoken in an autonomous region in the north of Spain with a similarly wet climate, includes over 70 words for rain.
Climate isn’t the only factor influencing our vocabulary. Local vegetation and animal life inevitably have similar influences on language. For example, different words develop for crops in different stages of development. In Dhivehi (the language spoken in the Maldives), there are 7 different words for coconut, and there are 47 Hawaiian words for banana. Many languages have different words for rice depending on whether it is cooked or uncooked, has been harvested or not, and so on. If this seems like an excessive level of detail, then consider the number of words you probably have for the various stages and forms of dairy product (from milk to cheese and everything in between), and the fact that some countries in the world eat no dairy – and so have no use for the distinction between clotted cream and crème fraiche.
Colour and Shade
Colour is another area where the environment you live in shapes your view of the world. The perception of colour is thought to have developed alongside other aspects of human evolution; starting with black and white, then red, with the other colours to follow. Some languages don’t have words for any colours, or even a word for the abstract concept of colour. Some cultures in hot climates see orange as a variant of red or yellow. Likewise, in some Celtic languages (e.g. Breton) there is a blurring between red and pink (ruz), and between grey, green and blue (glas) in Breton, Cornish, Welsh, Irish and Scots Gaelic. Is it because of the local weather? Possibly. But the African languages Xhosa and Zulu use -luhlaza for both blue and green and they experience a very different climate to that associated with Celtic languages. So possibly not.
How much our linguistic development is tied up with environmental factors isn’t totally clear. Sometimes people just see things differently, new words are introduced, or old ones disappear. The Greek philosopher Aristotle listed the seven primary colours as black, white, red, yellow, green, blue and violet (note the absence of orange and indigo). The word “orange” did not exist in English until the orange tree was brought to England in the 1500s – before then the colour was called “yellow-red” (and “geoluread” before that).
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