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Ejectives, High Altitudes, and Grandiose Linguistic Hypotheses

Submitted by on June 17, 2013 – 9:24 am 45 Comments |  

[This post is collaboratively written by Martin W. Lewis and Asya Pereltsvaig]

sex based gender systems

As GeoCurrents has noted in several previous posts, leading scientific journals and influential media outlets often favor research in linguistics that makes strong claims that resonate with the general public. A number of these favored studies claim to find a correlation between a linguistic feature and a non-linguistic social or cultural trait. For example, a recent paper by Gay, Santacreu-Vasut and Shoham from the Berkeley economic history laboratory claims to have found a correlation between linguistic gender systems and female economic and political empowerment: women in countries with languages that make gender distinctions are supposedly less likely to participate in the labor market or politics and have a reduced ability to get credit or own land. An earlier paper by Boroditsky, Schmidt & Phillips (2003) reported a link between linguistic gender and attributes ascribed to various inanimate objects. Yet another paper, this one by behavioral economist Keith Chen from Yale University, highlights a correlation between tense marking and financial behavior: people whose native language makes fewer distinctions between the future and present purportedly think differently about the future and therefore make different financial decisions. These and similar studies go back to the strong version of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, all but discredited by professional linguists, which states that the language one speaks determines how one thinks.* Many such alleged correlations between the linguistic and social realms can be, and have been, explored; as Mark Liberman notes in his LanguageLog post,

“many relevant linguistic and non-linguistic datasets are now pre-compiled and available for easy download, and the software needed for fitting various sorts of statistical models can easily be run on your laptop. So if you have a bright idea — maybe alcohol consumption correlates with phonotactic complexity? really, it could — the chances are that you test a model within a few hours. If it doesn’t work out, there are plenty more to try — maybe coffee consumption helps to preserve morphological inflection?”

nasal vowels_dry_warm_climate

Another related strain of research seeks connections between linguistic attributes and physical geography, based on the idea that certain kinds of terrain or climate favor certain structural features in languages. A number of Asya Pereltsvaig’s earlier Languages of the World posts explored several such hypotheses. One hypothesis explored there is that rich systems of case marking expressing fine spatial distinctions are related to the complex topography of the mountainous landscape that the speakers of these languages inhabit; for example, many languages of the Caucasus have particularly complex case systems. Some other scholars have proposed that the presence of nasal vowels correlates with cold and damp climates, noting that Modern French, based on the dialect of allegedly cold and damp Paris, has nasal vowels, whereas Spanish and Italian, spoken in warmer and drier climes, do not. As Asya discussed in detail in those posts, such correlations, while seemingly plausible for a small set of languages, fail to apply if a global language sample is used. For example, as illustrated in the WALS-based map posted on the left, many languages with nasal vowels are found in area that as not cold and damp, including West Africa, Dagestan (Hunzib), northern Pakistan (Burushaski), and northern India (Hindi, Mundari).**


A recent paper by anthropologist Caleb Everett published in PLOS ONE, “Evidence for Direct Geographic Influences on Linguistic Sounds: The Case of Ejectives”, dodges the challenge of cross-linguistic typology by basing its claims “that the geographic context in which a language is spoken may directly impact its phonological form” on a large-scope typological study considering the 567 languages in the WALS sample pertaining to glottalized consonants. The specific correlation supposedly found by Everett involves a relatively rare type of sound called ejectives. Unlike “plain” stop sounds, such as [p], [t], or [k], pronounced with a closure in the mouth, ejective stops involve an additional closure of the glottis (the space between vocal folds), which creates the dramatic burst of air when the oral closure is released, giving ejective sounds a certain “spat out” quality:***


Ejective sounds are found in 92 of the 567 languages in the WALS sample (see map on the left). Perhaps the best-known examples of languages with these sounds come from the Caucasus region, between the Black and Caspian seas. Languages from all four families limited to the Caucasus feature ejectives, including Abkhaz (Northwest Caucasian family), Ingush (Nakh family), Dido (Northeast Caucasian family), and Georgian (South Caucasian, or Kartvelian, family). Ejectives are also found in languages of non-Caucasian families that are spoken in the region, most notably (some dialects of) Armenian and Ossetian. Outside the Caucasus region, ejective sounds are heard most often in Athabascan, Siouan, and Salishan languages of North America; in Aymara and southern varieties of Quechua, spoken in the Andes; in Amharic, one of the major languages of Ethiopia; in Hadza and Sandawe, two Khoisan languages spoken in Tanzania; in Khoisan**** languages of southern Africa; and in Itelmen, an endangered language spoken in Kamchatka. Ejectives were also used for the constructed language Na’vi, the language of the aliens in the film Avatar.

A number of these ejective-using languages, including those of the Andes, the Caucasus, and the Ethiopian Plateau, happen to be spoken in areas of relatively high elevation. According to Everett, this linkage is systematic:

“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.”

Everett also argues that these patterns “surface on all major world landmasses”, and are not a result of the influence of particular language families. He concludes by specifying “a significant and positive worldwide correlation between elevation and the likelihood that a language employs ejective phonemes”. Everett proposes two “plausible motivations for the correlation”, thus suggesting that the implication works both ways: the presence of ejectives implies higher elevation AND higher elevation implies the presence of ejectives. One of Everett’s explanations is 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.”

Everett second hypothesis is that “ejective sounds may help to mitigate rates of water vapor loss through exhaled air”, based on the fact that high elevation areas are often characterized by dry air. His first proposed explanation—that it is easier to pronoun ejective sounds under conditions of low air pressure—would lead to a prediction that (most) languages with ejectives would be found in areas of high altitude. His second theory—that ejective sounds are a biological adaptation to pervasive water stress in high altitudes—would lead to a prediction that many if not most languages spoken in lofty elevations would feature ejectives.

Everett claims that these predictions are generally borne out by his analysis. He does, however, hedge this claim to a considerable extent by noting that many languages with ejectives are spoken not in by rather near areas of high altitude, a feature particularly prevalent in North America’s Pacific Northwest. He argues that the correlation still obtains, however, because the lowland peoples living in these areas traditionally spent a considerable amount of time engaged in subsistence activities in adjacent high-elevation zones, and hence would have experienced conditions conducive to the development and use of ejective sounds.

In actuality, this particular thesis is spurious. According to Everett’s calculations, “the force required to produce [an idealized ejective] gesture at 2500 m would be roughly 26% […] less than the force required at sea level”. Yet in the Pacific Northwest of North America, areas at this elevation are ice-covered or support at best meager alpine tundra, and hence were seldom frequented by indigenous people. From southern Alaska to western Washington—one of the world’s major “ejective zones”—the connection between altitude and the presence of these distinctive sounds simply does obtain.

Ethiopia_ejectives elevationBut is the correlation of ejectives with high-altitude languages found elsewhere in the world?  Our analysis suggests otherwise. To illustrate the general lack of correspondence, we have taken the WALS data on the locations language with ejectives (given as “dots” placed on the spatial center of each given language) from four parts of the world (Ethiopia, southern and eastern Africa, South America, and the US) and overlain them on elevation maps.

Southern Africa_ejectives elevation

As can be seen, most of the languages with ejectives (marked by white dots) are spoken in areas below the 2,500 meters mark. Even if we place the cut-off for “high altitude zones” at a much lower level, such as 1,500 meters (where the force differential is much less than 26%), many “ejective languages” still miss the mark.



South America_ejectives elevationQuite a few of these tongues are found in lowland areas, many of which are quite far removed from any lofty ranges. In southern Africa, languages with ejectives actually cluster in zones of moderate elevation. In Ethiopia and environs, half of the relevant languages are found off the high plateau. In South America, more languages with ejectives are found in the lowlands than in the highlands.






US_ejectives elevationIt could be argued that languages with ejective sounds developed in highland zones but subsequently relocated to areas of more modest elevation as their speakers migrated. But the same argument can also be applied to the reverse situation. Consider, for example, the Caucasus, the world’s most “ejective-rich” environment. Although the Caucasus, as a cultural-linguistic region, includes many highland areas, it also encompasses large expanses of low elevation, both to the south and the north of the Great Caucasus Range. Significantly, languages with ejectives are found in both the Caucasian highlands and lowlands. Several prominent linguists, most notably Joanna Nichols, have argued that the general historical tendency has been for languages of the north-Caucasus lowlands to move, under pressure from newcomers, into the higher-elevation zones of the south. As ejectives are found in many languages of the Caucasus regardless of the elevation at which they are or were previously found, it is difficult to view these sounds as an altitude-linked phenomenon. To the extent that ejectives correlate with altitude, this can also be a result of pre-modern population movements between areas of similar elevation; similar patterns of migration into areas of similar climate are well-attested in historical record.

Another objection to Everett’s proposal lies with the fact that most known and documented cases of a language acquiring ejectives occur via linguistic contact with an ejective-using language: like other types of sounds, ejectives can be “borrowed” through an intake of a sufficiently large number of vocabulary items that contain such sounds in the source language. Through this process Ossetian acquired ejective sounds from neighboring Caucasian languages, according to Ossetian linguist Vaso Abaev. Similarly, it has been argued that southern varieties of Quechua, particularly the Cuzco and Bolivian dialects, acquired ejectives via vocabulary borrowing from Aymara; northern varieties of Quechua, which have not been in contact with Aymara, do not have ejectives.


Other instances of a language developing distinctive (i.e. phonemic) glottalization, linguistically similar to ejectives, not only involve no change in altitude but occurred in areas of remarkably low altitude. One such case involves Danish, which has a phonemic feature called stød in traditional Danish grammar (literally, ‘push; thrust’). In phonetic terms, stød refers to laryngealization or glottalization. This phenomenon is found in most dialects of Danish (shown in pink in the Wikipedia map on the left) and in standard Danish—all of which are spoken in very low-lying areas. Our second example of a glottalic phenomenon found in a sea-level environment pertains to Estuary English, spoken in South East England, especially along the River Thames and its estuary. In this variety of English, the first element of a consonant cluster, such as [t] in bottle, is replaced by a glottal stop (similar phenomenon is found in Cockney as well). Though neither Danish nor Estuary English have ejectives in the strictest sense of the term, these phenomena are sufficiently similar to ejectives in their articulatory physiology that one would expect them to pattern with ejectives with respect to altitude, if Everett’s explanations are on the right track.

There is an additional catch: as Everett himself notes, his account is open to an objection concerning the acoustics of ejectives: while “the aforementioned lower pressure differential would in theory make ejectives easier to produce”, it also makes them “less perceptually salient at higher altitudes”. Everett’s counter-argument runs as follows:

“Given that one of the key acoustic characteristics of ejectives is their impact on the acoustic structure of adjacent vowels, it seems quite possible that they are preponderant at high altitudes due in part to articulatory ease, even though lower atmospheric pressure might reduce the salience of their associated burst of air.”

As Daniel Ezra Johnson in his comment on the LanguageLog post justly questions, “why don’t the people at sea level just make an ejective with 26% less compression, 26% less effort, 26% less air burst, and apparently still perfectly distinguishable effects on neighboring vowels?”

Let’s now turn to Everett’s second proposed explanation: that ejectives are a biological adaptation to high altitude in that they “may help to mitigate rates of water vapor loss through exhaled air”. As Everett notes, speech itself is costly in terms of water expenditure, and mountain climbers sometimes correspondingly minimize talking to conserve water. But alpinists engage in activities vastly more strenuous and demanding that those generally carried out by indigenous peoples of high-elevation zones. In actuality, water is readily available in most highland zones—much more so than in extreme deserts—and there is no evidence that most highlanders have ever been routinely subjected to water stress. As a result, evolutionary pressure to developed water-conserving ejective sounds would have generally been nil. As it turns out, few if any languages spoken in the world’s most extreme deserts, such as Tuareg, feature ejective sounds.

Perhaps the largest problem for the Everett hypothesis is the complete lack of ejective sounds in the WALS database in the world’s most extensive highland area, that of the Tibetan Plateau and its associated mountain ranges, including the Himalayas, the Pamir Range, the Hindu Kush, and the Tien Shan. This zone encompasses a vast range of distinctive highland environments, and it is populated by diverse groups of peoples speaking languages in a number of language families. If Everett’s theory accords with reality, one would then expect that ejective sounds would have emerged in a number of the languages spoken over this huge expanse of territory. Admittedly, Everett does mention the conspicuous lack of ejectives in the languages spoken on the Tibetan Plateau, but sidesteps the issue by noting that the Tibetans “have adapted to high altitude in distinct ways”, particularly by “breath[ing] at a faster rate than tested control populations”. Such an alternative adaptation to elevation, however, has not been documented among the large number of non-Tibetan peoples who live in high-elevation areas of central Asia—and whose languages likewise do not contain ejectives.


It appears that the correlation between absolute elevation and the presence of ejectives, needed to sustain Everett’s arguments, is weak at best. This supposed linkage is probably merely a spurious correlation of the sort discussed by Sean Roberts and James Winters in “Social Structure and Language Structure: The New Nomothetic Approach”. As Roberts notes in his ReplicatedTypo post, two other linguistic variables appear to be even more strongly correlated with altitude: Order of Object and Verb and the Relationship between the Order of Object and Verb and the Order of Adjective and Noun.


But maps of OV and VO languages, posted on the left, do not reveal any correlation between the order of object and verb and altitude: OV languages are spoken in the mountainous Andes of South America, but also in the lowland steppes of Central Asia; likewise, VO languages are spoken at both high and low altitudes. And if the correlations between these two word order patterns and altitude do actually exist, no physical or social explanation is available, suggesting that all three correlations are meaningless. As Mark Liberman points out,

“In every pair of datasets, for each variable in one of the datasets, we’ll see a distribution like those shown in the plots above, showing an especially strong statistical connection to a few of the variables in the other dataset. And sometimes these connections won’t make any sense — verb-object order and altitude, or velar nasals and savings rates, or lexical tone and acacia trees — while others will suggest a plausible causal story in one direction or the other”.

It remains to be seen whether the ejective-altitude connection belongs to the former or the latter category. For the time being, it is perhaps best to view this imaginative explanation as a mere just-so story, one that is superficially appealing, but which fails to withstand sustained scrutiny.


* A weaker version of the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis asserts that the language one speaks “gently nudges” one in the direction of thinking in certain habitual ways.

** The hypothesis that French has nasal vowels because of the cold and damp climate of Paris is discredited by other problems as well. One issue concerns the timing when French acquired nasal vowels, which is known from historical record to have happened by 1100, at the time of the Medieval Warm Period. Another issue goes to the core of the explanation for the alleged link: a cold and damp climate is said to cause habitual head colds which in turn are said to lead to nasality. Ironically, nasal congestion (whether caused by a cold, an allergy, or any other factor) leads to a lack of nasality, as the articulation of nasal sounds involving the air passing through the nasal cavity is made impossible by nasal congestion.

*** Ejective stops are by far the most common type of ejective sounds, but ejective affricates and fricatives, pronounced with a similar glottalic closure, are attested as well.

**** “Khoisan” is in all likelihood not a genuine language family, but rather a group of unrelated language families that share some prominent features (see Dimmendaal 2008).




Boroditsky, L., Schmidt, L., & Phillips, W. (2003) Sex, Syntax, and Semantics. In: Gentner & Goldin-Meadow (Eds.) Language in Mind: Advances in the study of Language and Cognition.

Chen, Keith (2013) The Effect of Language on Economic Behavior: Evidence from Savings Rates, Health Behaviors, and Retirement AssetsAmerican Economic Review.

Dimmendaal, Gerrit J. (2008) Language Ecology and Linguistic Diversity on the African Continent. Language and Linguistics Compass 2(5): 840–858.

Gay, Victor; Estefania Santacreu-Vasut; and Amir Shoham (2013) The Grammatical Origins of Gender Roles. Berkeley Economic History Laboratory (BEHL) Working Papers.  Online

Roberts, Sean and James Winters (2012) Social Structure and Language Structure: The New Nomothetic Approach. Psychology of Language and Communication 16(2): 89-112.


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  • Roland Schuhmann

    Reading this hypothesis I was immediately reminded of the ‘Hauch- und Schnauftheorie’ that was once used to explain the first consonant shift in Proto-Germanic ( …

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks, Roland. I seem to have seen your comment about the Germanic consonants in some other discussion of this issue (Facebook? another blog?), but since the relevant literature is in German, which I don’t read, I didn’t mention this issue.

  • SirBedevere

    Given his theory about water loss, one would also wonder why the world’s deserts weren’t similarly full of languages employing ejectives.

    Regarding glottal stops, they are also found in some New England accents in precisely the same places as in Estuary English (at least it seems to me). Of course, like most regional features, highly educated individuals seem to avoid them. I can always tell when my wife is very tired or has had one too many drinks when she asks whether we need another [bo'le] of wine.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks, James! Good point on ejectives in desert languages (I almost wrote “dessert languages”!). As we mentioned in the post, Tuareg doesn’t have them, nor do other Berber languages. Sahel is probably not that dry… Central Asian languages don’t have them despite the supposed dryness of both the desert areas and the mountainous areas…

      Haha about your [bo'le] of wine point! :)

    • Y

      Actually, air exhaled through the mouth, whether pulmonic or oral, is going to be be water saturated. However, air exhaled through the nose is much less humid (e.g. here), since water is reabsorbed through nasal tissue. Camels exploit this even more, to conserve water.

      So, if someone comes up with a paper correlating nasal vowels with a desert climate, remember you heard it here first.

      • SirBedevere

        Hmmm…did the French have an advantage over the British in colonizing the Maghrib? Now I feel guilty for even suggesting that to some weak mind.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig


      • Asya Pereltsvaig

        I think the map of nasal vowels in the post above ( shows that there is no such correlation—but it would be fun. Except people aren’t camels (and languages aren’t viruses)! Too bad some people haven’t yet figured it out…

      • Justin Barker

        Nasal vowels still involve exhaling out the mouth. How about a tonal language with nothing but nasal consonants and no vowels at all?

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          None exist, as far as we know…

          • Justin Barker

            Right, but if one did it would definitely be called hummese.

  • Jan Wohlgemuth

    Were the language locations taken from WALS? The points for the languages were set to minimize overlap, and most languages are not spoken in one point only but in areas that may very well cover a much more heterogeneous terrain with respect to altitude (or average air pressure).

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      That is an excellent point, Jan! I don’t think Everett has taken the full range into consideration as it would make computations particularly painful. I might be wrong on that. We didn’t because we wanted to use whatever data he used (and yes it is from WALS, as are some of my other maps). But it is also true that many of the “ejective languages” are relatively small and spoken in fairly compact areas. At least it is true in the Caucasus, where many of the languages are localized to a single village or a small cluster of villages.

  • marie-lucie

    Thank you, I was hoping that you would comment on this unusual theory! (a more sophisticated version of an old, pre-modern one). I earlier left a comment on Language Log asking if the authors had considered language contact, migration, mountains as refuges, etc as possible explanations.
    About ejectives on the Pacific Coast: they exist in an even longer strip, from Central California to British Columbia and Alaska.

    About nasal vowels: in Europe, French is joined by Polish and Portuguese in having phonemic nasal vowels. I don’t think that Portugal is particulalry damp and cold. English does not have nasal vowel phonemes, but it does have phonetic nasal vowels at least in words like want and don’t, and in some varieties of American English there are phonetic nasal vowels not only before nasal consonants but also after them, as in me.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for your comment, Marie-Lucie! Good point on ejectives in Pacific Coast languages. And excellent point about French vs. Portuguese. Portugal is indeed a prime counterexample, I had in mind. Nor did Portuguese get any less nasal in Brazil, as far as I know. The “damp & cold theory” breaks down even on Romance languages, let alone others: I’d fully expect nasals in Russian (esp. in St. Petersburg, where I am from). Or Scottish English. Or right here in San Bruno, where it’s grey and foggy most of the time. Non-phonemic nasality is even tricker because I think many languages have it, as well as some form of nasal assimilation.

      • Ezr

        Not to mention the fact that nasal vowels are an areal feature of both Amazonia and tropical West Africa, of all places (unless dampness is the factor to consider here…)

  • jim scobbie

    Watch out for an up-coming special issue of JIPA on non-pulmonic speech sounds, with a couple of papers commenting on the prevalence of ejectives in English, at low altitude.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for the thumbs-up, Jim!

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  • Y

    Controlling for independent samples is critical. Whether one uses the 9 Nakh-Dagestanian languages in the WALS sample, or the 29 in Ethnologue, or a few million idiolects, will make a big difference. So one needs to look at dependent language clusters, where within each cluster the languages are related through other mechanisms. For the old world, the clusters in the WALS sample are:

    1. Click languages (10 languages). Here I include Khoisan languages (from all 3 branches), Zulu and Yeyi (Bantu), Hadza and Sandawe (isolates) and Dahalo (Afroasiatic). All these languages contain clicks as well as ejectives. Other than the Bantu-Khoisan connection, there’s no agreement as to what combination of genetics and contact relateds these languages, but it’s assumed, by geographical reasoning, that clicks did not all evolve independently in these languages. A scenario which only accounts for the development of ejectives is not as convincing as a contact/gentic explanation, which accounts for the presence of both ejectives and clicks in these languages. therefore, I count all these languages as one dependent cluster.
    2. Afroasiatic languages (10), from Hausa to Soqotri, and 2 Nilo-Saharan languages (Komo, Berta) in their midst. The N-S languages are added by proximity arguments.
    3. The Caucasus (9 NE Caucasian languages, plus Abkhaz, Georgian and Armenian)
    4. Yapese (Micronesia).
    5. Korean (if you think Korean fortis conasonants are ejective).
    6. Itelmen (Kamchatka).

    Of these, (4),(5) and (6) are low-elevation languages; the geographic origin of the sound systems in (1) and (2) is unknown; and (3) is the only apparent high-elevation area. 1 out of six is not very convincing.

    A similar argument goes for the new world, especially when considering that the north-west (from California upwards) is a well-defined linguistic area, as is central America. I count 9 New world clusters: 7. Pacific NW (including Athabascan); 8. Southern Plateau (Kiowa-Tanoan, Zuni, Keresan); 9. N. American midwest; 10. Central America (in which, btw, WALS counts 5 Mayan languages. Both upland and lowland Maya have ejectives); 11. Bolivian Amazon-Mato Grosso (Trumai, Nambiquara, Itonama); 12. Andes (Siona, Jebero, Aymara, Jaqaru, Quechua); 13. Matacoan; 14. Kawesqar; 15. Chon (Selknam,Tehuelche). Of these 9 clusters, only (12) is strictly confined to a high elevation area.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      This is an excellent point, thanks! I believe the reasont that Everett counts individual languages rather than families or groupings, as you propose, is that otherwise it would be “too few data points”.

  • Roland Schuhmann

    The hypothesis made its way into the Daily News on National Geographic:

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for the link, Roland! Call me a cynic, but I wonder if some of that media attention is due to Caleb’s last name (and family connection)?…

      • Monty Vierra

        Until this comment, I had a great deal of respect for the way the discussion was going. To bring in someone’s name as part of an argument…well, that’s a rather cheap shot. In some contexts such a move could even be sexist or racist. It’s not so very long ago that women had to use initials or change their names to get published. I’d never heard of Caleb Everett–or Asya Pereltsvaig–before this. For me, an argument is immediately suspect the moment a person makes this kind of “attack.” If an argument is sound, this kind of remark is unneeded. In my experience, if an argument is not sound, this kind of remark surfaces. Now, I feel I’ve wasted my time even reading the discussion.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          Monty: You’ve not read my comment carefully, I am afraid. I am not using personalities as an argument against the hypothesis at hand. But personalities are important when it comes to media coverage. What I said is that I wonder whether the personalities in this case had something to do with the amount of media coverage (not with the validity of the hypothesis at hand). Why do I suspect so? Because I myself first learned about this work from the publicity that the author’s father made in the social media, before the actual paper was published. I don’t know how Everett’s work caught the journalistic attention, but I hardly believe that journalists search through barely-published linguistic articles looking for the next big thing, do you? (If they do, they aren’t good at it, as they’ve missed all the real discoveries that really should have been covered).

  • Sean Roberts

    Hi, this is a great overview of some of the complexities of the issue. I’ve written another post looking at the effects of population size and contact. It looks like population size is a better predictor of ejectives than elevation.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thanks for the link, Sean! Very interesting piece. I think it concurs with Etienne’s comment above and my response to it: essentially, ejectives are marked and so are incompatible with mass adult L2 learning. If we all think along the same lines, it must be correct, no? ;)

      • Sean Roberts

        Ha, maybe. But Everett’s mechanism is much more concrete than the contact induced change, and more empirically testable, so it seems like a worthwhile hypothesis to follow up with some experiments.

        • Y

          I’m afraid Everett’s mechanism is not “more concrete”. Everett has speculated about air pressure affecting speech dynamics, but has not given any empirical evidence for it.
          On the other hand, contact is a well-known mechanism for acquiring ejectives and other sounds: if a language is in close contact with another and borrows a lot of words from the other language, it will often borrow the L2′s phonemes. In the case of ejectives, that’s happened in Zulu (along with clicks), Quechua (as Asya describes here), Lake Miwok and Ossetic.

          • Sean Roberts

            Of course there’s lots of evidence for contact-induced change. However, I meant that the MECHANISM behind Everett’s hypothesis about pressure is based on a physics model, rather than the cumulative psychological processes of individuals. This should mean that it’s more experimentally testable.

          • Ezr

            Erm, if things worked that way, isolated phonetic tendencies would always be the best predictor of sound changes… that is often not the case. In fact, it’s rather trivial to apply physics to sound change – that’s what much of phonetics is about. However “testable” the underlying mechanism, though, you still have to explain how the change spreads and is maintained in linguistic communities. So say some human groups move to higher gound; over time, the sound system of some of their languages acquire ejectives (supposedly because of favorable aerodynamics). But why some languages and not others (as this is obviously not a universal)? What kinds of phonemes tend to develop into ejectives, or perhaps prosodic conditioning is involved? Are the starting stages of the change influenced by factors such as age or biotype in this case? And, crucially, how does this “natural” tendency interact with other “natural” as well as “external” factors, such as markedness, demography or communication needs? These are the very same questions linguists may encounter when trying to explain any other kind of sound change, and no single “physics model” can account for them if it’s restricted to one grand, catch-all mechanism.

  • Etienne

    Another objection which has not been made here or on LANGUAGE LOG is the fact that the theorized process whereby high altitude causes ejective stops to arise appears unattested in any language family whose Proto-language was spoken in a low-lying area and some of whose daughter languages are spoken in highland area.

    Consider the case of the Romance languages: Rome, where Latin was originally spoken, is comparatively low in altitude, but Romance languages/dialects are found in the Alps, the Carpathian mountains and the Pyrenees today. Oddly enough, not a single one has ejective stops today. Other language families whose Proto-language spread from low-altitude to high-altitude zones (Slavic, Indo-Aryan…) also fail to acquire ejectives…well, except in Germanic, where the examples of Estuary English and Danish quoted in the post would seem to point to a correlation between ejectives and flat, cold, damp climates (hmm, acousticallly an ejective does sound close to a stop consonant being realized by someone about to sneeze -hey, I may be on to something here!)

    Jokes aside, even if further research showed a real correletion between high altitude and a propensity for ejectives, this would by no means mean that the proposed cause must be valid. I cannot help but note that on average mountainous areas are more isolated than low-lying ones, and there has been some intriguing work arguing that some linguistic features may be likelier to arise in isolated areas than in zones with regular language shift/contact. IF this is true of ejectives then there may be something to Caleb Everett’s work.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Excellent point about languages who linguistic ancestors lived in lower elevations. One could object, of course, that these languages have not lived high enough for long enough—but how would we know what “enough” is?…

      Also an excellent point about refugia: I was thinking along the same lines, actually. Note, however, that this theory (unlike Everett’s) would make a different prediction, namely that languages with ejectives would be found at high altitudes (or in other refugia areas), but not necessarily that mountainous languages would have ejectives (they can be “weird” in other ways too). This seems to be better supported by facts, as far as I can tell. And it wouldn’t be hard to explain: ejectives are marked (i.e. cross-linguistically rare), so lingua francas and imperial languages of the grand plains would not have them in accordance with McWhorter’s “Persian conversion” idea. So we may definitely be on to something here!

  • JanneBJ

    If there was a connection between cold temperature and certain speech sounds, why would Norwegian and Swedish have ingressive air-flow in high-frequent words like those for ‘yes’ and ‘no’?

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  • Etienne

    Sean Young: interesting. But again, things may not be that clear-cut if we look at things diachronically. The ejective-rich languages of Meso-America or the American Pacific Northwest have few speakers today, but in pre-Columbian times many would have had as many speakers as a number of major European languages.
    Comparative data makes it clear that the presence of ejectives in many of these languages goes back far in time: Proto-Mayan, for instance, is reconstructed as having a set of ejective consonants, which all its daughter languages preserved. This leads me to my next point: I am uneasy about calling ejectives “marked”. Diachronically they seem to be remarkably stable in those languages (Mayan languages, Georgian, many varieties of Armenian…) which have them and of whose histories we know something.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Well, ejectives may well be stable historically but they are phonologically marked in the same sense as front rounded vowels, for example: they only occur *in addition to* non-ejective counterparts (or unrounded front vowels), never *instead of*. That is they are more rare compared to those “unmarked” counterparts.

  • marie-lucie

    All the discussions I have read thus far seem to assume that ejectives as a type of consonant are likely to emerge readymade, so to speak, starting from some mysterious, extra-linguistic cause. I think that it is a mistake to consider speech sounds in themselves and not as part of linguistic systems.

    I have been working for some years on Comparative Penutian, an extension of my still ongoing work in Comparative Tsimshianic (I use “Penutian” in Sapir’s more expansive definition, not in the very restricted “Plateau Penutian” definition which is the one currently recognized in reference works). North of California most languages of this large group have ejective stops and affricates, as well as plain ones. In Tsimshianic and in many other families, ejective consonants in non-initial position can be shown to arise from a sequence of C + ? occurring at morpheme boundaries. The glottal stop sometimes occurs not only as part of a morpheme, but as a morpheme in its own right, which often glottalizes or “ejectivizes” the preceding C (rather than cause a vowel to intervene, for instance). For some of the Penutian languages, there are correspondences between an initial C’- (ejective consonant) and a reconstructible sequence *?VC-, where the root *?VC behaves like any other CVC root, losing its vowel when followed by a stressed syllable (eg *CVC-VC > CCVC, including *?VC-VC > *?C-VC > C’VC). In several of the languages, there is a morphological process of consonant gradation, such as (using K as a cover term): K neutral, K’ diminutive, G augmentative, and similarly for other stop series. These are only some of the often morphophonemic relationships existing between plain and ejective or other complex consonants.

    I think that there is no more reason to wonder about the existence of ejective consonants than of nasal vowels, which arise from a reinterpretation of nasal allophones as phonemes when the conditions which gave rise to those allophones have changed, something which is well-documented in French and Portuguese, among other languages.

    • Asya Pereltsvaig

      Thank you for your detailed comment, Marie-Lucie! I never assumed that ejectives arise ex nihilo, as they are clearly a result of some changes from a sequence that involves a glottal stop. It should be noted, however, that even the glottal stop is not present phonemically in all languages. I speak a languages that does perfectly well without.

      • marie-lucie

        (Sorry to be late with this answer, but my computer started to act up and I had to have it fixed). Perhaps I did not express myself clearly: I did not mean that YOU assumed that ejectives arise ex nihilo, I meant the people who put forward the theory about mountains, breathing, etc as causes of ejective sounds (at least that’s what I understood them to say). And indeed the glottal stop is not phonemic everywhere: I was mentioning languages (not my own either) that I know or know of.

        • Asya Pereltsvaig

          I agree that taking linguistics (e.g. how ejectives arise) out of the equation makes those theories even weaker!

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  • Justin Barker

    Good article. It seems the idea that language, meaning and sound are arbitrary is hard for many to swallow. People would rather believe that the utterance of some particular sound or grammatical construction will imbue them with special qualities. It’s the same magical thinking that gives us spells and words of power. This kind of reasoning may capture the imagination but in the end it’s just superstition.