Imagine that I'm creating phonemic inventories for multiple conlangs, each of which is spoken by a people settled within (or roaming about) a very different physical environment from the others. Assuming that these different civilizations developed their languages completely apart from one another and haven't simply drifted apart from one original root language, is there any consensus that certain phonemes work better or worse in different environments?

For instance, do certain phonemes perform better or worse:

  • over choppy waters being sailed by a seafaring people?
  • through a jungle or heavily wooded area populated by a tree-dwelling people?
  • in a mountainous area frequently traversed by various groups settling near or even on the mountains?
  • carrying over a vast inland plain or a placid lake?
  • cutting through the ambient noise of a swamp or jungle (or even a city)?

These are just examples. I'm not specifically asking about any of those scenarios. I just want to make sure that any language I create would be as plausible as possible, down to the very last detail I can think of. Any reliable resources on the subject would be great, but as a complete novice, I haven't been entirely sure what to search for and have come up short on my attempts so far.

  • No need to apologise. We're all here to learn. – curiousdannii Feb 20 '18 at 2:44
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    Related question on Linguistics linguistics.stackexchange.com/questions/25864/… – jknappen Feb 20 '18 at 8:58
  • @jknappen That link has some great resources. Per this comment on that question, do you think a "geolinguistics" tag might be appropriate here? – Aporia Feb 20 '18 at 22:10
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    @curiousdannii I noticed that your edit removed the comparative-linguistics tag. Do you think that tag would be relevant if, in the question, I made a more explicit point that answers could very easily include research comparing various extant (or recently extinct) natural languages? – Aporia Feb 20 '18 at 22:54
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    @Aporia Geolinguistics could be a good tag. But unless you tell us which languages you want compared, I don't think comparative-linguistics is needed here. – curiousdannii Feb 21 '18 at 0:31

There has also been evidence that suggests that ejectives tend to occur more frequently in areas of higher elevation, perhaps due to their being easier to produce in these regions:

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. [...] we offer two plausible motivations for [this correlation's] 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. [...] Our results reveal the direct influence of a geographic factor on the basic sound inventories of human languages.

(emphasis mine)

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    The "Cited by other articles" section to the right of your linked paper (and identically located on the articles linked in that section) looks like a gold mine. If you wish to flesh out your answer more with that other research, I think we'd have a great resource for many a future question here on this site. I'd try a self-answer myself if I wasn't such a complete novice on the subject. Either way, thank you for this. – Aporia Feb 20 '18 at 23:08

Here is another researcher (Prof. Ian Maddieson) suggesting exactly such correlations:

In a presentation on Wednesday at the Acoustical Society of America fall meeting, Maddieson showed that consonant-thick languages like Georgian are more likely to develop in open, temperate environments. Meanwhile, consonant-light languages like Hawaiian are more likely to be found in lush, hot ecologies.

The complete article even includes a world map showing consonant heaviness per region. Generally speaking there certainly seems to be a relation but the research is not very far into how exactly the impact of surroundings are on the languages.

Other researchers say this is just the beginning of a line of research into how nature rules our speech. "This is the first of its kind, and there are several others coming now. It's becoming increasingly clear that the way we speak is shaped by external forces," says Sean Roberts, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands who was not involved in the study.


There have definitely been serious linguistic theories about environment affecting features like this - the ones I can remember off the top of my head are that certain sound changes in Proto-Germanic were because its speakers had thicker phlegm or something and that tonogenesis is more likely to occur in certain tropical climates. The latter was a relatively recent paper. These are taken relatively seriously by many linguists, but most I've met are highly skeptical. They haven't reached widespread acceptance, so I would certainly not say there's any consensus about it.

That said, if you'd like your conlang to contain certain phonemes because you personally think they'd work better in a certain environment, there's nothing stopping you.

  • I find the phlegm theory very interesting and that's certainly something else that I'd like to take into account. But since that isn't perfectly aligned with the question that I asked, have you thought about self-answering a question on that topic? I think that would be a great topic in its own right. – Aporia Feb 20 '18 at 22:39
  • Also, since I'm fairly new to using any SE sites at all, do you think my question would benefit from removing the part about any consensus and replacing it with a question explicitly about existing theories? – Aporia Feb 20 '18 at 22:57

If you're looking for parallels in animal communication, there's plenty of good evidence that environment shapes the kinds of sounds used. For instance, Henry & Lucas (2010) showed that birds in forest habitats (more absorption) were more sensitive to frequency changes (FM), as modulated narrowband sounds (essentially, vowels) are more reliably transmitted in that cluttered environment. Birds living in open habitats had more temporal resolution, and tended to use more amplitude modulation. https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/j.1365-2435.2009.01674.x

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