Tonal Talk

Climate influences language. True or false?

This is Sandra Tsing Loh with the Loh Down on Science, saying: True, suggests a new study.

Think about trying to talk when your throat is dry. It’s harder, right? Well, researchers in Germany and the Netherlands say: That’s exactly why certain languages arose in humid climates. Which languages? Tonal ones. Like Mandarin Chinese.

In these languages, tone is part of a word’s meaning. So in Mandarin, the word “ma” is different from the word “ma.” “Ma” means horse. “Ma” means mother. You don’t want to mix those up!

Medical research on the larynx, or voice box, suggests that it’s harder to make complex tones when air is very dry.

So the European team wondered: Are tonal languages more common in humid areas than dry ones?

They looked at the geographic distribution of almost four-thousand languages. And, indeed: Tonal languages tend to be in warm, humid climates, not cold, arid ones!

And if you can’t hear the difference between ma and ma? Maybe don’t move to China