Investigating environmental effects on phonology using diachronic models

Frederik Hartmann, Seán G. Roberts*, Paul Valdes, Rebecca Grollemund

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

1 Citation (Scopus)


Previous work has proposed various mechanisms by which the environment may affect the emergence of linguistic features. For example, dry air may cause careful control of pitch to be more effortful, and so affect the emergence of linguistic distinctions that rely on pitch such as lexical tone or vowel inventories. Criticisms of these proposals point out that there are both historical and geographic confounds that need to be controlled for. We take a causal inference approach to this problem to design the most detailed test of the theory to date. We analyse languages from the Bantu language family, using a prior geographic–phylogenetic tree of relationships to establish where and when languages were spoken. This is combined with estimates of humidity for those times and places, taken from historical climate models. We then estimate the strength of causal relationships in a causal path model, controlling for various influences of inheritance and borrowing. We find no evidence to support the previous claims that humidity affects the emergence of lexical tone. This study shows how using causal inference approaches lets us test complex causal claims about the cultural evolution of language.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere8
Number of pages26
JournalEvolutionary Human Sciences
Publication statusPublished - 3 Jan 2024

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © The Author(s), 2024. Published by Cambridge University Press.


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