Languages From Tropical Countries Sound Louder

Languages From Tropical Countries Sound Louder

The Northwest Coast of North America holds the world record for the “quietest” language. The indigenous culture in the cool Pacific climate has agreed upon words with closely arranged consonants, such as the Nuxalk word for mosquito: “pk’m.” In contrast, languages from Oceania or West Africa sound particularly “loud”; there, vowels accumulate in rapid succession with consonants, as seen in the Yoruba word for butterfly, “labalábá.”

The climate in which languages have developed is the determining factor. A recent study that appeared in the scientific journal “PNAS Nexus” supports this alleged correlation. In simple terms, languages in warmer regions are louder than those in colder regions, as explained by linguist Søren Wichmann from Christian-Albrechts-University in Kiel. He co-authored the paper with three colleagues from Nankai University in Tianjin, China.

The terms “loud” or “quiet” are described in the study using the technical term Sonority. Researchers utilized a scale from 1 for voiceless clicks or plosive sounds like K, where the airflow is blocked, to 17 for open vowels like A. This allowed numerical values to be assigned to the 5293 languages whose basic vocabulary is recorded in the Automated Similarity Judgment Program database. When combined with temperature data for each language’s place of origin, a clear statistical correlation emerged: around the equator, the average sonority is highest.

Vocabulary as a Climate Archive

Exceptions also exist. In relatively warm regions of Central America or on the Southeast Asian mainland, languages with lower sonorities were found. According to Wichmann, this reflects the delayed effect of language development over centuries or millennia. Therefore, one could consider vocabulary as a kind of climate archive for the respective regions of origin.

The explanation for the climate effect is straightforward: in dry, cold air, the vibration of the vocal cords necessary for the production of voiced sounds is more challenging, as noted by the linguist. On the other hand, warm air absorbs the high-frequency energy of voiceless sounds, making them sound even less pronounced.