Ejectives, Altitude, and the Caucasus as a Linguistic Area

The last several weeks has witnessed a flurry of excitement (and not a little criticism) over the publication of Caleb Everett’s work arguing for a correlation (and a couple of potential causal links) between ejective series of obstruents and altitude above sea-level. ┬áMany of these reactions have been negative, faulting the work for inadequate sampling (here), lack of statistical significance (here), or more generally a failure to account for spurious correlations (here; most amusingly in Mark Liberman’s chart showing a correlation of English quantifiers and American real-estate listings (here)).

C. Everett’s ejectives/altitude correlation is not significant

I’ve now had a chance to take a closer look at Caleb Everett’s recent PLoS ONE article on the correlation between ejective consonants and altitude, and I think the ejective
distribution is explainable on purely classical grounds, that is,
common inheritance and areal diffusion. That is, it is NOT necessary to resort to
an explanation in terms of altitude. The classical explanation is preferable
since the mechanisms of inheritance and diffusion are observable in
plenty, whereas noone has yet observed the hypothesized mechanism whereby
the speakers start using more ejectives in response to moving to higher
altitudes. Continue reading

Sound inventories and population size

When I had lunch with two phoneticians the other day, the question came up whether there is a correlation between the size of the phoneme inventory of a language and its population size. Neither of us knew, and we started to speculate in which direction it should go. My guess was that larger languages should have smaller inventories and vice versa, while the two expert expected the opposite. One of the reasons for my conjecture was the observation by Lupyan and Dale (2010) in Plos ONE (Lupyan G, Dale R (2010) Language Structure Is Partly Determined by Social Structure. PLoS ONE 5(1): e8559. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0008559) that larger languages tend to have less morphological complexity (and vice versa). Continue reading