Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Climate and language change

As the house historical linguist on this blog, I suppose it falls to me to add a few words about Mrs. Digital Immigrant's fine letter, specifically on climate and altitude as causes of language change. Mr. V is right enough that "Historical linguists today learn about this mostly for yucks", but what's striking is how seriously such proposals have been taken even by prominent specialists and in some cases not all that long ago.

The famous Indo-Europeanist Julius Pokorny wrote in 1929 about the Germanic Consonant Shift. That's the change often referred to as Grimm's Law, the famous change of stops into fricatives — sounds like p, t, k become f, th h — among other things. Pokorny thought this happened around 800-500 B.C.E. due to a Klimasturz — a dramatic deterioration of the climate (quoting here from Schrodt, p. 201):
Ich nehme nun an, daß diese nicht allmählich, sondern mit der Wucht der Katastrophe hereinbrechende Klimaverschlechterung auch auf die Sprache der Urgermanen einen wesentlichen Einfluß ausgeübt hat, und zwar im Sinne, daß man, um sich vor dem Eindringen der kalten und feuchten Luft zu schützen, zu festerem Mundverschluß seine Zuflucht nahm, womit naturgemäß eine Verstärkung der Expiration und eine Verengung der Reibungsflächen des Luftstroms Hand in Hand ging.
The key to this sudden change is buried in the middle of that quote: People closed their mouths 'more firmly' to protect themselves from the cold, damp air, which led to pronouncing p as f, etc. The surprise is that Schrodt actually spends some time debunking this view, suggesting that a 'hot desert wind' could have just as easily explain this change.

Altitude-based accounts of this change and the High German (or Second) Consonant Shift have fared much better. The historical linguist Heinrich Meyer-Benfey argued that living in the mountains led to increased force of expiration, causing consonant shifts. Eduard Prokosch (who taught here in Wisconsin) notes (pp. 55-56) that this "theory has found considerable approval", including by Osthoff and Collitz, and even the skeptical Prokosch says that the view "is not without a measure of intrinsic probability", before dismantling the view.

I'll leave it to Mr. V to talk about whether Upper Midwestern speech actually can be described as 'clenched-jaw'.
  • Prokosch, Eduard. 1938. A Comparative Germanic Grammar. (= William Dwight Whitney Linguistics Series.) Baltimore: Linguistic Society of America.
  • Schrodt, Richard. 1974. Die germanische Lautverschiebung und ihre Stellung im Kreise der indogermanischen Sprachen. (= Wiener Arbeiten zur germanischen Altertumskunde und Philologie, 1.) Vienna: Halosar.
Visual counterexample to the 'cold = closed mouth' thesis from here.


Ollock said...

This discussion comes up every so often on a conlanging forum I frequent -- usually in the context of someone wanting to make a language for people who live in a specific environment. We have a few members that are good enough with linguistics to say it's a bogus example, and some even come up with counterexamples; though of course people are still free to use discredited theories for creative purposes, I suppose.

I would wonder how people who think of lenition in Spanish -- since I understand that Spain is not particularly cold.

Ollock said...

I cant edit my comment -- I meant to say:

I would wonder what people who subscribe to this theory would think of lenition in Spanish -- since I understand that Spain is not particularly cold.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, I read right past the typos, of course. For creative purposes, it might be kind of fun and funny to try this, but it IS hard to figure out how environment might shape language.