Why do languages contain some sounds, but not others?

An anthropological linguist has recently claimed that geography is a key factor. But over the years, people have also suggested psychology, or accidents of history. What’s really behind the sounds?

Linguist Daniel Midgley gets phonological on this episode of Talk the Talk.


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One thing I’ve learned in my days as a linguist is that if a story about language is really interesting, it’s probably wrong. Which is why Caleb Everett’s new work pinged my linguistic skeptical senses. He’s noted that languages in mountainous areas have more of the sounds we call ‘ejectives’. The correlation is interesting, but why is it happening? Is it the air up there, or is it something else? I vote for ‘something else’, but listen to find out why.

There’s also an update on the Spelling Bee.


Show notes

Looks like Ben’s spelling of ‘knaidel’ was okay. Ah, loanwords — always so mutable.
http://www.jewishjournal.com/opinion/article/a_linguists_take_on_the_knaidel_kneydl_controversy

Here are some ejective consonants. You can hear how they sound, and even try them yourself.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ejective_consonant

Here’s the short version of Everett’s article.
http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=altitude-may-influence-language-sou-13-06-12

Here’s the medium version,
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/06/130612173332.htm

with some criticism from a linguist
http://science.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/06/12/18920124-mountains-shape-the-sound-of-language-says-study?lite

And here’s Everett’s full paper.
http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0065275

But how does it stack up? Well, here’s a look at mountains of the world…
http://www.eoearth.org/article/Mountain

and here’s the data from WALS, the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures. This is the map of glottalised consonants. Anything blue is an ejective. Notice the puzzling absence of ejectives in the Himalayas. They do appear in non-mountainous regions of Africa, though.
http://wals.info/feature/7A?s=20&z4=3000&z8=2999&z7=2998&z5=2997&z6=2996&z3=2995&z2=2994&z1=2993&tg_format=map&v1=cfff&v2=c00d&v3=cd00&v4=dff0&v5=c909&v6=d00d&v7=dd00&v8=d909

WALS is amazing, by the way. You can look up just about any feature and see where in the world it’s used.
http://wals.info/feature

r/linguistics isn’t sure about all this.
http://www.reddit.com/r/linguistics/comments/1g8uzf/does_this_belong_here_or_in_rbadlinguistics/

Jacob Grimm had some zany (and rather frightening) ideas about how group psychology affects phonology.
http://books.google.com.au/books?id=R22mAAAAIAAJ&lpg=PA30&vq=grimm&pg=PA30#v=snippet&q=grimm&f=false

A Spanish king with a lisp caused the Castilian theta? Not likely.
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/qi/8495579/QI-Quite-interesting-facts-about-Spain.html


Show tunes

‘Blue Ridge Mountains’ by Fleet Foxes
from the album Fleet Foxes

‘Black Mountain Blues’ by Nike Drake
from the album Family Tree