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Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots

Everett, C., Blasi, D. E., & Roberts, S. G. (2015). Climate, vocal folds, and tonal languages: Connecting the physiological and geographic dots. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112, 1322-1327. doi:10.1073/pnas.1417413112.
We summarize a number of findings in laryngology demonstrating that perturbations of phonation, including increased jitter and shimmer, are associated with desiccated ambient air. We predict that, given the relative imprecision of vocal fold vibration in desiccated versus humid contexts, arid and cold ecologies should be less amenable, when contrasted to warm and humid ecologies, to the development of languages with phonemic tone, especially complex tone. This prediction is supported by data from two large independently coded databases representing 3,700+ languages. Languages with complex tonality have generally not developed in very cold or otherwise desiccated climates, in accordance with the physiologically based predictions. The predicted global geographic–linguistic association is shown to operate within continents, within major language families, and across language isolates. Our results offer evidence that human sound systems are influenced by environmental factors.
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The Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics is an institute of the German Max Planck Society. Our mission is to undertake basic research into the psychological,social and biological foundations of language. The goal is to understand how our minds and brains process language, how language interacts with other aspects of mind, and how we can learn languages of quite different types.

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