Lund Language Diversity Forum Blog

A blog about the wonderful diversity of the world's languages, updated biweekly by the members of Lund Language Diversity Forum.

You don’t talk like you walk but you speak like you eat

Languages differ in what information can be conveyed through grammatical rules and what people in different speech communities talk about. While many languages use a subject-verb-object word order, such as Mary pets the cat, other languages use a Yoda-like object-subject-verb word order, such as the cat Mary pets, and conversations about growing mangos tend to be more frequent in tropical regions than in arctic regions. However, even basic perceptual notions vary greatly across languages and cultures both in detail and in scope. For example, despite the fact that humans are, on average, able to perceive the same range of the light spectrum, some languages only have two color words, basically contrasting brighter colors with darker colors (Kay & Maffi, 1999), while others have very large inventories in which every color word can be modified according to brightness and saturation. Such differences gave rise to something called linguistic relativity, that is the thought that the structure of a language affects its speakers’ worldview and/or cognition. One commonly cited but incorrect example is that Inuit languages would have exceptionally many words for snow and ice as a result of living in very cold environments. Even though the literal interpretation of linguistic relativity, also called linguistic determinism, was popular during the early 20th century, it has since been disproven. But are there many other, more nuanced, linguistic patterns that can be attributed to the surrounding world.

One common way of dividing cultures is distinguishing between rural and urban ones. Rural societies are characterized by lower population density in which the most important economic activities involve the production food and raw materials in a somewhat natural environment. Urban societies, on the other hand, are characterized by higher population density and an environment that provides basic facilities for human activity. Another way is to divide cultures between sedentary agricultural societies, which would apply to all societies in which the economy is based on producing and maintaining crops and farmland, and hunter-gatherer societies, which refer to societies that get most of their food by hunting wild animals and gathering edible wild plants. The lifestyles resulting from these conditions naturally affect what people tend to talk about, which cultural artifacts are regarded as important, as well as certain social structures. However, these differences also seem to have some interesting effects on how the actual structures of languages are shaped.

Spatial relations used to convey direction based on the left and right sides of one’s body might seem fundamental, but these egocentric frames of reference are only common in industrialized and urban speech communities (Levinson, 2003; Palmer, 2015, Nölle et al., 2020). In rural speech communities, referentiality is often based on the fixed properties of the local environment, such as uphilldownhill in mountainous areas, and are thereby viewpoint-independent. In Marshallese, which is spoken mostly on the atolls of the Pacific, oceanward and lagoonward are used. However, Marshallese speakers that have moved abroad to inland areas use the egocentric leftright reference frame instead (Palmer et al., 2017). Languages also differ in how many words for different smells they have, which makes odor naming easier in some cultures (Majid, 2021). Many industrialized, urban speech communities only have a limited set of actual terms for smell, such as English stinkyfragrant, and musty, that is terms that do not directly derive from another word, such as English earthy or peppery. Larger inventories of actual smell terms occur more frequently in hunter-gatherer societies, but also in pastoral and horticultural communities. For example, Jahai [jeha1242], has 12 such basic terms (Majid & Burenhult, 2014). The reason for this seems to be a combination of ecology (people living in industrialized environments are exposed to air pollution, while those living in dense tropical rainforests are exposed to greater biodiversity and high humidity), culture (city dwellers spend a lot of their time indoors, while hunter-gatherer communities spend their time moving around and interacting with the natural environment) and genes (it is possible that there might be some genetic differences in how many functioning olfactory receptors different populations have).

Spatial relations and smell terms represent only a fragmentary part of our vocabulary regardless of language, but there is one general example of how our way of life can affect how we talk. Some speech sounds are very common throughout the world, but there are also many specific sounds that are incredibly rare. [m], [i], [k] and [j] occur in over 90% of the world’s languages, while the sound used to “blow a raspberry”, [r̼] or [ʙ̺], is only used as a speech sound in, at most, a handful of languages (Moran & McCloy, 2019). Most distributions of speech sounds vary unevenly across the globe, either because languages which are related to each other tend to have inherited some common speech sounds or because of language contact between (related and unrelated) languages which causes linguistic features such as speech sounds to spread across geographical areas. For example, the typologically rare click sounds almost exclusively occur in Southern Africa.

This brings us to labiodental consonants, such as [f] and [v]. These sounds are articulated using the lower lip and the upper teeth and are neither common or uncommon, occurring in 44% and 27% of the world’s languages respectively. However, they are incredibly rare in languages spoken by hunter-gatherer societies, while rather common in food producer societies (Blasi et al., 2019). Since the hunter-gatherer societies of the world are geographically dispersed and speak a plethora of unrelated languages, neither areal nor genetic reasons can explain why this is the case. One of the unique properties of labiodentals is that their articulation depends on our so-called bite configuration – we need to be able to place our upper teeth on our lower lip to pronounce them. Try to pronounce [f] at the same time as you shift your lower jaw forward. Pretty difficult! While human children are generally born with a slight overbite, which makes pronouncing [f] and [v] an easy task, paleoanthropological evidence suggests that due to the extensive chewing of though food, Neolithic people’s overbites transitioned into an edge-to-edge with age. When societies started using agriculture and intensified food processing, their food became softer and the overbite persisted into adulthood, such as in most non-hunter-gatherer societies today. Consequently, since it is thought that modern hunter-gatherers live in societies which are somewhat similar to those of our ancestors when it comes to sustenance, the likely explanation for the remarkably specific geographic distribution of labiodentals is based on what people eat!



Blasi, D. E., Moran, S., Moisik, S. R., Widmer, P., Dediu, D., & Bickel, B. (2019). Human sound systems are shaped by post-Neolithic changes in bite configuration. Science, 363(6432), eaav3218.

Kay, P., & Maffi, L. (1999). Color appearance and the emergence and evolution of basic color lexicons. American anthropologist101(4), 743-760.

Levinson, S. C. (2003). Space in Language and Cognition: Explorations in Cognitive Diversity. Cambridge University Press.

Majid, A., & Burenhult, N. (2014). Odors are expressible in language, as long as you speak the right language. Cognition, 130(2), 266–270.

Moran, S., & McCloy, D. (2019). PHOIBLE 2.0.

Nölle, J., Fusaroli, R., Mills, G. J., & Tylén, K. (2020). Language as shaped by the environment: Linguistic construal in a collaborative spatial task. Palgrave Communications, 6(1), 1–10.

Palmer, B. (2015). Topography in language: absolute frame of reference and the topographic correspondence hypothesis. In: R. De Busser & R. J. LaPolla (Eds.) Cognitive linguistic studies in cultural contexts (pp. 325–347). John Benjamins Publishing Company, Amsterdam.

Palmer, B., Lum, J., Schlossberg, J., & Gaby, A. (2017). How does the environment shape spatial language? Evidence for sociotopography. Linguistic Typology, 21(3), 457–491.

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