Have you seen Dune, a recent film directed by Denis Villeneuve? It is based on a famous novel by Frank Herbert about Arrakis, a desert planet, where water is extremely scarce. This affects not only how people on Arrakis behave, but also how they speak. Of course, Dune is fiction, but numerous studies show that the environment shapes human language in many profound ways. People living in the desert, mountains or forests tend to use different speech sounds, words and even grammars.
But let’s first stay a while on Arrakis and enjoy the incredible view of the endless sands, so poetically captured by Villeneuve. Arrakis is inhabited by a people called the Fremen, who have learned to survive in this stunning but extremely hostile environment. They collect water from the atmosphere in “windtraps” and recycle it from body moisture with the help of special suits. When someone dies, the water in their body is recycled, too. No wonder they talk about water a lot. The Freemen say, “A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe”. When the Fremen describe what happens, they will mention water. For example, if they have killed an enemy, they “have spilled their water”. If they pledge allegiance to someone, they pledge to their
“water”. Because of their environment, the Fremen have learned to see the world through the prism of water, so to say.
Real languages adjust to the environment all the time. You have probably heard about Inuit languages with a wealth of words representing different kinds of snow. For example, there are special words for falling snow and for snow lying on the ground. Some studies, however, show that the Inuit languages have a particularly rich vocabulary for different types of sea ice. But if you need a truly rich vocabulary for snow, you should go elsewhere, for example, to the Norwegian Sámi. Still, there is clear evidence that vocabulary related to snow and ice is shaped by climate. Cross-linguistic data reveal that languages spoken in cold regions normally make a distinction between ice and snow, while languages spoken in warm climates can do without it. This is not surprising. People who often speak about ice and snow can find it useful to have different words for them.
Another example of how environment can affect the vocabulary is the lack of separate words for “cloud” and “fog” in languages spoken in mountain environments. The reason is that it is difficult to distinguish between the two aerosols in the mountains (see the photo on the right). Instead, languages spoken there can have special words to distinguish between objects at different heights. While English has only the pronoun “that” to refer to something distant, for example, “Look at that car!”, Pacaraos Quechua, a language spoken in the Andes, has truqay “that place or object at the same level,” traqay “that place or object further down,” and naqay “that place or object further up”.
Moreover, the environment can affect the sounds we produce. For example, languages spoken in regions covered by trees have less complex syllable structures than languages spoken in open areas. For illustration, take the English word strict. This is a very complex syllable with five consonants (represented by the letters s, t, r, c and t) and only one vowel (i). Such complex syllables are avoided in an environment with trees because it is more difficult to distinguish between different consonants when there are obstacles. Humidity matters, as well. It is claimed that dry air reduces the elasticity of the vocal folds. Overall, the more humid a climate, the higher the proportion of vowels contained in the words.
So, if climate change makes our planet similar to Arrakis in Dune, we can predict what our language will be like. First of all, we will use many literal and figurative expressions with the word “water”. We will lose many words for ice and snow. Instead, we will acquire a sophisticated vocabulary for different types of sand. We will have a lot of consonants because our vocal folds will no longer be flexible enough in the dry air, and also because trees will not block our communication anymore.
Languages adjust to the climate and landscape because language users do. If our planet becomes a desert, like Dune, our language will change dramatically, as well. Let us hope it won’t come to that!
Everett, Caleb. 2017. Languages in Drier Climates Use Fewer Vowels. Frontiers in Psychology 8. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01285.
Maddieson, I. & Ch. Coupé. 2015. Human spoken language diversity and the acoustic adaptation hypothesis. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America 138(3). 1838–1838.
Regier, T., A. Carstensen & Ch Kemp. 2016. Languages Support Efficient Communication about the Environment: Words for Snow Revisited. PLOS ONE 11(4). e0151138. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0151138.
Urban, M. 2020. Mountain linguistics. Language and Linguistics Compass 14. e12393. https://doi.org/10.1111/lnc3.12393.