Ian Maddieson and Christophe Coupé, "Human spoken language diversity and the acoustic adaptation hyothesis", ASA 2015
Bioacousticians have argued that ecological feedback mechanisms contribute to shaping the acoustic signals of a variety of species and anthropogenic changes in soundscapes have been shown to generate modifications to the spectral envelope of bird songs. Several studies posit that part of the variation in sound structure across spoken human languages could likewise reflect adaptation to the local ecological conditions of their use. Specifically, environments in which higher frequencies are less faithfully transmitted (such as denser vegetation or higher ambient temperatures) may favor greater use of sounds characterized by lower frequencies. Such languages are viewed as “more sonorous”. This paper presents a variety of tests of this hypothesis.
Data on segment inventories and syllable structure is taken from LAPSyD, a database on phonological patterns of a large worldwide sample of languages. Correlations are examined with measures of temperature, precipitation, vegetation, and geomorphology reflecting the mean values for the area in which each language is traditionally spoken. Major world languages, typically spoken across a range of environments, are excluded. Several comparisons show a correlation between ecological factors and the ratio of sonorant to obstruent segments in the languages examined offering support for the idea that acoustic adaptation applies to human languages.