Friday, June 14, 2013

"Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives"

We've been quiet here about linguistics in the big science media lately in part because a lot of the stuff just seems problematic in ways that would take a serious academic paper to react to seriously. But here is a new one, and a single point needs to be made about it. PLOS One has published "Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives". To save you having to click and scroll, here's the abstract:
We present evidence that the geographic context in which a language is spoken may directly impact its phonological form. We examined the geographic coordinates and elevations of 567 language locations represented in a worldwide phonetic database. Languages with phonemic ejective consonants were found to occur closer to inhabitable regions of high elevation, when contrasted to languages without this class of sounds. In addition, the mean and median elevations of the locations of languages with ejectives were found to be comparatively high. The patterns uncovered surface on all major world landmasses, and are not the result of the influence of particular language families. They reflect a significant and positive worldwide correlation between elevation and the likelihood that a language employs ejective phonemes. In addition to documenting this correlation in detail, we offer two plausible motivations for its existence. We suggest that ejective sounds might be facilitated at higher elevations due to the associated decrease in ambient air pressure, which reduces the physiological effort required for the compression of air in the pharyngeal cavity–a unique articulatory component of ejective sounds. In addition, we hypothesize that ejective sounds may help to mitigate rates of water vapor loss through exhaled air. These explications demonstrate how a reduction of ambient air density could promote the usage of ejective phonemes in a given language. Our results reveal the direct influence of a geographic factor on the basic sound inventories of human languages.
The language given as having ejectives match the source data in WALS (which is not to say it's all correct ... Korean is listed as having ejectives and that's not the standard analysis) and eyeballing the maps (see a sample below) suggests that they may well indeed cluster at higher elevations. If so, then, we may have a correlation. But the abstract does not bear out the claim made explicitly in the title: Nothing in there, as far as I see, can reasonably count as 'evidence for direct geographic influences on linguistic sounds'. The article, as the abstract makes clear, establishes a correlation and argues for motivations for that correlation. I don't think the motivations are as plausible as the author does, and I suspect there are other ways to account for this, but we're back into 'serious academic paper' territory there.


7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Wait, correlation doesn't equal causation?

Anonymous said...

Wait, WALS isn't accurate about something?

Mr. Verb said...

Yes to both of those.

Joe said...

I think I may have figured out what's actually going on with this! Stay tuned.

travis said...

unrelated to this post, but can't find a way to contact you. Your blog came up in a google search for "best closing line of a news article." So I wanted to share this:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2013/06/10/190385484/chopped-how-amputated-fingertips-sometimes-grow-back

Áine said...

Yeah, Korean does not, absolutely not, have ejectives. The sound of the glottalics is like that of pharyngealisation in that there is a highly *reduced* airflow around those consonants, as opposed to plain and aspirated stops. Plain stops are even lightly aspirated in word-initial position.

So yeah. That's flat-out wrong.

I still am not sure what is going on with Korean. It's sort of like stiff voice, but it's definitely glottalic action.

Joe said...

The laryngeal phonology of Korean is really complicated. I would look at the work of Avery & Idsardi and of Greg Iverson and various co-authors for the best take.