Ejective Consonants Correlate with High Altitude

ejective consonants

South Africa, where Zulu is spoken, has high-elevation areas, and Zulu has ejective consonants.

Ejective consonants, which are voiceless consonants produced while the glottis closes, occur more at high altitudes.

According to Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami, geography can influence the sound of language. In fact, his research has revealed that these types of consonants appear frequently at altitudes of more than 4,900 feet (1,500 meters).

Everett studied about 600 of the 7,000 languages spoken in the world. He found that ejective consonants occur in about 18% of all languages. (English doesn’t have them.)

Production of Ejective Consonants

Ejective consonants are produced when compressed air comes out of the mouth in a short burst. They contrast with pulmonic consonants, produced from air in the lungs.

Why have you never heard of the term pulmonic consonant? Well, probably because all English consonants are pulmonic. For most of us, there’s no need to be more specific than that.

Many languages in high-altitude regions, however, have both pulmonic and ejective consonants. (Listen to Dr. Everett give an example of an ejective consonant.)

In fact, according to National Geographic, the majority of the languages that have ejective consonants are spoken in (or near) five out of six high-elevation regions. Languages that have such consonants include Lakota, Nez Perce, Q’eqchi’, Quecha, Tlingit, and Zulu.

ejective consonants, nez perce

This 1899 photo shows an encampment of the Nez Perce tribe in Lapwai, Idaho. Nez Perce is a language that uses ejective consonants.

Correlation Doesn’t Equal Causation

Everett admits that correlation doesn’t prove causation. Still, he has a theory about why these types of consonants occur in high-altitude languages.

Because these sounds require the compression of air in the pharynx, they may be easier to produce where the air is thinner.

Moreover, they produce less water vapor than other sounds during a conversation. This could be an adaptation in areas where high altitude contributes to dehydration.

“Does Geography Influence How a Language Sounds?” National Geographic. June 14, 2013.
“A partir de 1 500 m d’altitude, les langues changent de nature.” Science et Vie. Août 2013.

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