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Science & Environment

How The Climate Can Shape The Way We Speak

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Where you live affects how you sound. That's clear when you visit just about any region in this country. But linguists are playing with a more surprising idea, that physical geography like mountains, rain forests and wide open spaces and even climate shape the way we speak.

SEAN ROBERTS: Yeah, that's right. It sounds a bit crazy to start with, probably because, you know, we like to feel we're in control of what we say and, you know, how the weather affects the way we speak.

MARTIN: That's Sean Roberts. He's a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics.

ROBERTS: But really, we're talking about very long periods of time. Once you start thinking like that, it really does make sense.

MARTIN: The theory goes like this. Consonants don't carry very well in hot, sticky environments. They get lost in all that dense foliage. But vowel sounds, they travel well in places like rain forests. These ideas were presented last week at the fall meeting of the Acoustical Society of America. Roberts didn't participate in that presentation, but he does similar research. Here's how it works.

ROBERTS: The idea is if you're living in a very warm climate, you're going to be spending more time outside, possibly more time further away from others, as opposed to if you're in a very cold climate and huddled around the fire all the time. So you're going to be needing to communicate at a greater distance. There might also be a lot more dense foliage blocking signals getting through. And so the kind of sounds that are effectively transmitted and heard will be a bit different if you're in a cold climate. And over thousands of years, the languages in warm places and languages in cold places will start to drift apart from each other.

MARTIN: And so vowel-heavy Hawaiian ends up sounding like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Hawaiian).

MARTIN: While in the cold, wide-open spaces of the country Georgia, talk is consonant rich.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Georgian).

MARTIN: You'd think Roberts' own research would take him to some pretty exotic places. But for one of his projects, he chose instead to pore over transcripts of talk show host Larry King.

ROBERTS: That's sort of embarrassing study to have done.

MARTIN: But Roberts did it. And even though he won't publish the data because there are too many confounding variables, he found that this theory of language pretty much held up when he looked at what the weather was like when Larry King was taping.

ROBERTS: He uses more vowels when it's warm, which is what you would predict from this theory.

MARTIN: Linguist Sean Roberts in London.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LARRY KING LIVE")

LARRY KING: Joan Collins, Linda Evans exclusive from the hour. It's next on "Larry King Live." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.