Acoustic adaptation is a theory in naturalism which suggests that the sounds animals make adapt to their environment: either as a result of their physical environment, or other sounds around them. You can notice that in cities, for examples, were birds will often seem to mimic the man-made sounds they hear every day. Recently though, some linguists have suggested that human languages undergo a similar process of adaptation.
Though this theory have yet to be conclusively proven, there are some intriguing ideas behind it. The main principle believed to affect the sound of a language is the frequency sound waves can travel at in a particular environment. For example, consonants don’t travel well in areas of dense vegetation such as rainforests, and therefore languages which developed in such landscapes are light on consonants and feature long vowel sounds with lots shifts in tone.
European languages, especially those developed in the rolling hills of Northern Europe like German and English, tend to be consonant-heavy, as the acoustics make it much easier for them to be picked up. Temperature seems to be a factor too, with warmer climates favouring open vowel sounds and words ending in vowels, with the languages of colder climates preferring shorter vowel sounds, and more consonants, especially at the end of words. Look at Italian, for example, in which almost every words ends in a vowel, and words tend to be multisyllabic with a variety of vowel sounds. English, on the other hand, tends to feature shorter vowel sounds and words rarely end in a vowel sound. Of course though, English has travelled a lot, so even though there are generally uniform spellings of words (though I won’t get into British- and American-English spellings today!), the sounds of words can vary a lot by region and country, and perhaps this is determined by landscape.
It’s an interesting idea, and I can see the trends that the supporters of this theory describe. Part of me though, thinks that environment alone influencing language to such an extent is too simplistic. I’m sure there are many other factors at play, though I can believe that acoustics is one of them.
I think it’s so attractive because it seems like our environment can influence in so many ways. It can definitely alter our mood or mindset, and our bodies, depending on how effort we have to put in to live in a certain place, or how many opportunities it offers us for exercise.
So why not affect the way we think too? What do you think? Do you think your language is influenced by where it came from, and do you think the way you personally speak is influenced by your physical environment?