What influences the sounds of language?

speech

Do you ever wonder why languages sound the way they do?  Psychologist Iris Berent wanted to test whether we prefer some sounds because they’re physically easier for us to produce.

While the theory makes sense, the experiment she and her team conducted shows it’s likely incorrect: it seems that humans will prefer and better register a difficult-to-pronounce combination of sounds if it follows their language’s phonological and grammatical rules.  Not only that; these rules provoke a physical response in native speakers’ speech motor systems.

I just can’t stop thinking about this study. It raises so many questions.

For example, Berent’s experiment was only conducted on English speakers, so do all languages follow this pattern of not necessarily always privileging the easiest-to-pronounce words?  At least one theory suggests they don’t. In a sampling of about 600 languages, anthropological linguist Caleb Everett has found that those spoken in high-altitude areas have more ejective sounds (sounds expressed in the pharyngeal cavity, near the back of the throat/roof of the mouth, and uttered in a short burst – you can listen to Everett’s explanation of them here) than languages spoken in low- or medium -altitude locales.  Everett thinks this is because ejective consonants are physically easier to form in the cold temperatures and low oxygen levels found at high elevations.

On the other hand, Berent’s findings fit well with a lot of other theories about linguistic evolution.  For example, many linguists note the role of socio-economic phenomena on language  That may sound vague, but here’s a concrete example: From around 1350-1700 AD, the English language experienced something called The Great Vowel Shift, where we came to pronounce – you guessed it: vowels —  differently than before.  Because it happened relatively recently, linguists have been able to study it in-depth, and the answers don’t point to a physical cause.  The Great Vowel Shift could have happened because of the mixing of London and Midland populations. After all, it seems like human nature to want to talk like people you’re hanging out with or listening to (tell me you don’t feel like you should put on a British accent after you watch an episode of Downton Abbey!).  Or, it could have been the establishment of new accents as signs of social class in this changing population.  Another theory is that the Great Vowel Shift was spurred on by the era’s increasingly valuing English culture over French, a new mindset that was reflected in the alteration of French-influenced pronunciations.

But could there be a purely opinion-based reason for why some languages seem to prefer certain sounds?  Could vocabulary and overall structure have evolved because, for a majority of a language’s early speakers, certain sounds just had a nice ring to them?  It turns out I’m not the only one pondering this: the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics actually has a long-running project dedicated to finding the answers to questions about the aesthetics of language.  It’s a complicated thing to study, but imagine all the implications that would result from their findings.

Berent’s experiment with physical effort and sound preference may have left me with questions, but one thing is for sure: like these other studies and research, it could one day help support or refute theories about a wide-range of language-related mysteries, from how we process words and sounds, to how languages have originated and evolved.

By Alysa Salzberg

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