THE EFFECT OF ALTITUDE ON LANGUAGE.

Claire of Anggarrgoon has a post on the Papuan language Diuwe, about which the Ethnologue entry says only “below 100 meters.” The code for the language being DIY, Claire thought a fuller description of the language would make a good “DIY effort”:

Therefore let me start the ball rolling by claiming that DIY is the only language which supports the hypothesis that altitude affects air stream mechanisms. Its consonant inventory contains 3 stops, four fricatives, 5 laterals, six approximants and seven vowels.

Mark Dingemanse of The Ideophone (who alerted me to this project) picks up the ball and runs with it:

Hidbap is Diuwe’s closest neighbour both geographically and phylogenetically. It is a language spoken above 100m but below 200m in the same area as Diuwe, that is, 12 miles southwest of Sumo, east of the Catalina River. Like Diuwe, it has exactly 100 speakers. The languages are quite closely related, though there is no mutual intelligibility due to the presence of a large bundle of isoglosses at the 100m isoline. This bundle of isoglosses is largely due to the fact that speakers of either language avoid crossing into each other’s territories at all cost…

There is much more, ending with a call for other language bloggers to “enlarge our sample of altitude-affected inventories to get a better view of the phenomenon.” Alas, I’m up to my ears in actual work at the moment, but I hope others will rush in where Foley1 fears to tread!


1Foley, W. A. The Papuan Languages of New Guinea. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Comments

  1. Bob Helling says:

    Do I understand this correctly? Are they saying that, based on two populations of 100(!) persons each, they have formed a general rule about how altitude affects speech patterns? This sounds like an incredible stretch. You say that there is much more. Can you give us an idea of what kind of sample size there is altogether so far?

  2. It’s a joke, Bob.

  3. John Emerson says:

    Claire mentions Kabardian at one point, which for me is an adequate excuse to go off on a tangent.
    I was just reading a book about Kalmyck history (“Where Two Worlds Met) around 1700, and at one point in the 17th century the Mongol Kalmycks’ alternating adversaries and allies included the Kabardians (Caucasian language, sometimes call Circassians), the Mari (Finno-Ugric, sometimes call Cheremis), the Nogay and Kazakh Turks, three or more Cossack groups (Ukrainian speaking, usually anti-Russian) and of course the Russians.
    The Kalmycks, on the northern Caspian, had direct diplomatic relations with the Ottomans, the Russians, the Dalai Lama in Tibet, the Chinese Emperor, and most lesser groups of any importance within that area. In 1709 in the Russian service a few of them fought against the Swedes at Poltova (though at that point they were rather uncooperative Russian allies) and during an earlier periods they fought against the Poles and Lithuanians, who still contested large areas with Muscovy. Late in the XVIIIc they returned to China, but some of the ones who remained behind entered Paris at the end of the Napoleonic war.
    The book is recommended if you’re fascinated by this kind of thing. It’s not written to be entertaining, however.

  4. Bob Helling says:

    Shoot! They got me! I not only took the bait but swallowed the hook on that one.

  5. This puts me in mind of a lecture back in the late 1970s, I believe, by the anthropological linguist Charles Hockett, who argued that f-stops correlated with cereal diets–diets of “pap” supposedly leading to different patterns of chewing and jaw positioning in pronunciation. He was serious, if perhaps a bit past his peak by that point. I found mention of it in an archive at Public Anthropology. Anyway, the presence of f-stops in Yapese, whose traditional staple was swamp taro (aka ‘hard taro’, Cyrtosperma), seemed to be one of many languages not well explained by his hypothesis. The Yapese, of course, are also inveterate chewers of betelnut, which no doubt accounts for the abundance of glottalized ejectives in their language. They tend to eject the first few mouthfuls of saliva after they start a new quid, then swallow the rest, as I learned to do after a few months of fieldwork there. (I had already acquired f-stops in my first language, and had even employed them quite frequently during my spell in the U.S. Army.)

  6. John Emerson says:

    From around 1950:
    “Sino-Tibetan kinship systems exhibit quite a different type of complexity…. Translated into more general terms applicable to language that would conform to the following linguistic patterns, we may say that the structure is complex, while the elements are few, a feature which may be related to the tonal structure of these languages…..The widely recognized feature of the Oceanic kinship system seem to lead to the following formulation of the basic characteristics of the linguistic pattern: simple structure and few elements…..The linguistic pattern to correlation of this situation [American Indian kinship] is that certain of the American Indian languages offer a relatively high number of element which succeed in becoming organized into relatively simple structure by the structures’ asymmetrical forms.
    Levi-Strauss, Claude, “Structural Anthropology”, 1963: “Language and the Analysis of Social Laws”.
    Wolfram Eberhart,(“Conquerors and Rulers”, Brill, 1952, pp. 69-72) proposed that that the Mongol, Turkic, Tibetan, and Tungusic peoples each had their own distinct political forms, ways of life, and even their own types of pastoralism varying according to the combined effects of language group and the type of livestock raised (Tibetans raising yaks and nomadizing over a rather small area, for example).

  7. For the record, the sequence of events/thoughts that led to the post was something like: hmm, haven’t posted a language of the week for a while, but am up to eyes in moving. Why not make my readers invent their own? Of course, the code for this *has* to be DIY…. hmm, but DIY might already belong to a language, better check ethnologue … (checks ethnologue, reads the comment, and the rest is history…)
    At some point I’ll post my sketchy linguistic correlations file.

  8. Peter Austin says:

    A researcher (who shall remain nameless) claimed in the 1970′s that the reason most Australian Aboriginal languages lack fricatives is due to the high temperatures and low humidity across the continent thereby affecting air flow.

  9. mollymooly says:

    Maybe the reason for the low humidity in Australia is that most Australian Aboriginal languages lack fricatives ….

  10. Excellent point! The study of linguistic effects on climate remains in its infancy.

  11. It’s been unseasonably warm here in the Netherlands the past week, and by now my garden could do with some rain.
    Which fricative would you recommend me using?

  12. Richard Hershberger says:

    “It’s a joke, Bob.”
    A similar bit in sports/economic history is a paper floating around corellating post-WWII economic growth with whether a country plays cricket or baseball. Baseball countries clearly win out. I don’t recall if the paper explicitly asserts a causal relation, or leaves this to the reader.

  13. Australia and India may be the exceptions that prove that cricket really rules ….

  14. Richard Hershberger says:

    I would have to dig the paper out, but as I recall it was written some years ago, before India’s recent economic surge. So perhaps cricket has long term economic benefits.

  15. A one-winged species of partridge is confined to the lower slopes of Mt Huyanqquilliqo, somewhere in South America (as I recall).
    Males and females are either dextrous or sinistrous, depending on their gender, and are also altitude-conscious. Males tend to fly in higher-pressure areas (about 1.1000Bar) while females prefer lower atmospheric pressures(about 1.000Bar). This has led to serious reproduction problems, and the species is under severe threat of imminent extinction.
    They also have big white and black spots all over them, and look cuddly.
    Please send your contributions towards saving this unique species (in plain brown envelope, or via Paypal) to:
    richardparker01@yahoo.com

  16. Someone better send me a new SpecGram article before this is all over!

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