How Geography Affects Language

From the mountains high to the valleys low, the way we speak has something to show.
village in the mountains language geography

Language geography is a field of study that examines the way languages are distributed across the globe, forming linguistic countries and nation-states of their own. Political borders are what frequently determine language borders, but there are also a host of other cultural, economic and, yes, geographical considerations.

One need only look at the mysterious whistled languages of various mountain- and forest-dwelling societies to see this at work. Whistled languages are a way of getting around the limitations of an environment that makes human contact difficult. Whistles don’t echo like shouts do, and they can travel over long distances without getting distorted (and without requiring quite as much exertion from the speaker). Of course, the advent of cell phone technology — and globalization in general — has created less of an incentive for younger members of these societies to learn these whistled languages, but this is a strong example of the way human language is sometimes shaped by the literal lay of the land.

What Is Geography?

At its simplest, geography is the study of the features that make up the earth: the mountains, the plains the continents and so on. That said, the field is often split into two: physical geography and human geography. The former refers to looking at the actual physical features of the Earth. Human geography, though, is how humans interact with the planet. That encompasses quite a few things: the borders we’ve made, the paths of migration, the ways human society has changed the environment and more.

Language geography fits neatly into this second category, because languages have been shaped and changed by the world around us, in ways obvious and not. First, we’ll look at physical geographies and their effect on language evolution, before looking at how human geography has also played a major role in the way we speak.

Linguistic Drift And Language Geography

To understand the mechanics of language geography, you first have to understand how linguistic drift works. Similar to the way genes are imperfectly replicated and passed down, languages transform gradually as they’re passed down to subsequent generations or geographical regions. Before national languages were mandated by the state, the natural geographic spread of languages often looked more like a gradient of dialects that were most like the dialects that were geographically closest to them.

While geographical proximity plays a role in how likely it is that you’re able to understand your neighbors, certain topographical features — especially mountains, large bodies of water, deserts or untamed forests — can play a dramatic role in closing down the channel of mutual intelligibility between neighboring communities or states. A dangerous mountain range was more than enough to prohibit (or severely limit) contact between various groups of speakers, and with enough geographical isolation, languages could diverge so much as to be barely recognizable to one another.

The Basque language is a prime example of this. Basque, or Euskara, has long stumped linguists due to its apparent lack of relation to any other living language. Mostly left alone over thousands of years, Basque was able to develop in a linguistic vacuum thanks to geographical constraints like the surrounding mountain ranges.

Meanwhile, areas that are broad and flat (think: plains) are called linguistic spread zones — areas with high linguistic diversity where waves of speaker groups overlap with each other (and often replace each other). These include areas like the Eurasian steppe, the American Great Plains and sub-Saharan Africa.

Can Altitude Affect Your Language?

Geography doesn’t only affect language in broad lateral sweeps. Altitude also has a marked effect on the types of sounds humans tend to produce, and this, in turn, changes how languages sound.

A 2013 study published in the journal PLoS ONE found a striking correlation between languages spoken at high altitudes and ejective consonants, meaning sounds produced with emphatic bursts of air. Rather than using the lungs, these voiceless phonemes are produced by the closing of the vocal cords. As Scientific American describes them, “it’s almost as though you’re trying to make the sound of a consonant while holding your breath.”

Study author Caleb Everett analyzed 567 languages based on where they were spoken; 92 of them contained ejective consonants. The majority of these ejective consonant languages were spoken in or near the world’s most high-altitude regions, including the North American Cordillera, the Andes Mountains and the Ethiopian highlands. The main exception to this was the Tibetan plateau, where spoken languages didn’t contain ejectives. These correlations were remarkably consistent, however, considering they held true across entirely different language families.

His theory? That these sounds are easier to produce up high because at an altitude where there’s already less air pressure, it makes sense to communicate with compressed sounds that are easier to produce with the thinner air.

Additionally, ejective phonemes require us to emit less water vapor when they’re uttered compared to other kinds of sounds. Losing too much water vapor at high altitudes can lead to dehydration and altitude sickness, so this linguistic feature may also be a biological adaptation that helps people survive in these climates.

How Did Geography And Migration Affect The Languages Of Europe?

While patterns of migration have shaped language all around the word, let’s zoom in on Europe to see some of the ways the two interact. The diverse geographical features of Europe—ranging from the expansive plains of the east to the mountainous regions of the Alps and the Pyrenees, and the peninsulas like Iberia and Scandinavia—have historically influenced the migration patterns of its inhabitants, thereby affecting linguistic development and diversity.

As we’ve already mentioned, mountains and other barriers to human movement historically shaped language barriers. The Alps, crossing eight countries in Europe, are a prime example. To the north, Germanic languages dominate, including Swiss German dialects with their unique characteristics shaped by Alpine geography. To the south, Romance languages such as Italian and French are prevalent. The mountain range acts as a dividing line, influencing the extent to which these linguistic groups interact and blend with each other.

When communities live within the mountains themselves, they often are isolated and develop their languages separately. We already talked about Basque, which is perhaps the most famous example, but another example from the Alps is Romansh, which is a Romance language that deviated from the others in Switzerland.

Migration has been another significant factor in the evolution of Europe’s languages. The history of Europe is marked by waves of migrations, including those of the Indo-Europeans, the Slavs, the Germanic tribes, and later the Vikings. Each of these groups brought their own languages, which mixed with the local languages. For example, the Roman conquests spread Latin across a vast part of Europe, which later evolved into the Romance languages including French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. The migration of Germanic tribes reshaped the linguistic map of northern Europe, leading to the emergence of Germanic languages including English, German, Dutch and the Nordic languages.

The migration due to trade, conquests and later industrialization brought about significant linguistic changes and exchanges. Cities that were significant trade hubs, like Venice and Amsterdam, became melting pots of languages and dialects, facilitating linguistic borrowings and the emergence of pidgins and creoles.

As human technology has progressed, language has become more unbounded by geography. In our nomadic past it would take months to travel from one country to another, but now a train or plane can connect speakers of different languages in a few hours or less (and that’s without us getting into the landscape of the internet). While languages are not often impeded by mountains any more, human geography is still a major player in where languages are spoken. Europe is split into countries that are often clearly defined by the languages spoken there. Though the reality is more complicated than “Everyone in Germany speaks German” or “Everyone in Spain speaks Spanish,” the official languages of a country do affect what is taught and what is expected. And modern migration patterns are shaped not so much by the physical landscape as the bureaucratic one, as people moving from one place to another can’t simply walk into another country and make a new life there.

In both Europe and the rest of the world, the diffusion of languages is still very much connected to geography and migration. Languages will continue to shift and change, responding to the world around them.

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