Language Development and the Effects of Geography on Human Communication


Tracing language development is a complicated process. Linguists continue to unravel mysteries such as who were the first humans to communicate using speech and how did they manage to spread their ancient mother tongue around the globe. But even if we haven’t figured it all out, we have learned a great deal about specific factors affecting how language spreads.

We know that languages from one region of the world tend to resemble each other. For example, the Romance languages (Italian, French, and Spanish) obviously have similar linguistic features. The reason for this is fairly simple, these languages all descended from Latin. But there are other more complex factors, besides what linguists call genetic relatedness, that also shape language development.

Non-genetic factors include borrowing between languages, retention of features when a population adopts a new language, or even chance. Languages within the same geographical location, for instance, Romanian, Bulgarian, Albanian, and modern Greek, share certain areal features because adults speaking different languages come into contact with one another and begin to share and borrow different linguistic features, much like they might trade goods and cultural artefacts.

This means that aspects of the physical world influence and constrain language, like all aspects of human culture. While there is some disagreement among linguists about the extent to which geography can directly affect the lexical or structural composition of language, it definitely plays an indirect role by constraining how humans come into contact with each other.

Indirect Effects of Geography on Language Development

Influence of geography on language development can be of many types:

1. The geography in a certain region might be a feature of the landscape that impedes movement of human populations. Typically, mountains and rivers have become barriers for human expansion in the past. For this reason, many language communities accumulate in small isolated places in such landscapes. Some notable examples include, the Himalayas, Caucasus, and Andean mountain chains.

By contrast, regions with flat, broad geography, such as the American Great Plains and Russian steppes have historically been classified as linguistic spread zones. In these areas, successive waves of language groups replaced each other over long periods of time.

2. The distribution of natural resources in a given part of the world also leads to the spread and development of different languages in the area. Agriculture is an important driver of complex civilizations and according to one theory, once determined which societies would come to dominate the world.

For example, Asia Minor happened to have species of plants and animals that were easily domesticable and a climate where surplus crops could be stored easily. These and other nonlinguistic facts shaped the societies in which they were found and indirectly led to certain languages spreading to different parts of the world as trade expanded.

3. As a corollary to the above, technologies available to a society are constrained by the geography they live in. Archeologists and linguists have worked together to show that the prehistoric peoples of central Eurasia’s steppe grasslands were the original speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language from which the world’s most popular languages were derived.

This language development theory suggests that these peoples’ innovative use of the ox wagon, horseback riding, and the chariot led to the Eurasian steppe becoming a thriving transcontinental corridor of communication, commerce, and cultural exchange. As their traditions spread, they gave rise to advances in copper mining, warfare, and patron-client political institutions, ushering in an era of vibrant social change. These innovations necessitated the spreading of the language.

4. Besides these effects, socially contingent barriers can also become linguistic barriers. Some geographical barriers are actually human-made. Religious and ethnic conflicts throughout the world have resulted in two populations becoming isolated to particular geographic locations within a single country or even to one population separating entirely and establishing their own country.

If such isolation persists, their use of language can also diverge. For example, some scholars believe some aspects of Yiddish arose because of this kind of ethnic conflict over the centuries in various parts of Europe.

The above four indirect effects of geography on the development of languages shows the complexity of explaining how particular features of different languages come to be. In the end, one thing is clear: languages are beautiful, living organisms whose development is as vulnerable to facts in the external world as the development of human psychology.

What About Direct Effects?

Now, while the indirect effects are clear, it is harder to tell whether geographic features directly affect language development. While some linguists have tried to argue, for example, that altitude affects humans’ ability to form certain types of sounds, others have questioned the research methodology behind these theories.

In fact, the only proven example of a direct effect on phonetics is whistled language. These languages where people use a system of whistled communication to transmit and comprehend messages across long distances, are rare compared to spoken language, but can be found in cultures around the world (e.g., in the Canary Islands, in the mountains of Turkey, and in a village on the Greek Island of Evia).

Whistled languages are different from codes used by herders or animal trainers to convey very simple, limited instructions. Similar to spoken languages, whistled languages involve intonation or vowel formants that allow for complex thoughts to be conveyed to fluent whistlers.

The existence of such whistled languages suggests that actual physical differences in the terrain can affect language development, but only under a very special set of circumstances.

Language Becomes Less Diverse

Looking at the development of different languages also gives us clues as to why language diversity is diminishing. As geography becomes less of a barrier to communicating with other cultures because of the Internet, it makes sense that dominant languages continue to spread around the world reaching even the most remote corners of globe.

The negative side of increased exposure to other cultures is that this brings some rare languages to the brink of extinction. At Alpha Omega Translations, we believe that to preserve an important aspect of these cultures, we need to actively protect these rare languages. So, we’re preparing an extensive report on Alpha Omega’s CEO, Dimitra Hengen’s, fascinating series of interviews with the last speakers of the whistled language of Antia. Stay tuned!

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