Claremont, Calif. (January 3, 2012)—Pitzer College Research Professor of Anthropology Robert (Lee) Munroe’s in-depth study into the impact of climate on language was featured in the December 2011 issue of New Scientist magazine. In the article “Powers of Babel”, the magazine cites Munroe’s findings that people in warmer climates tend to use more vowels than people in colder climates.
Munroe’s research in countries such as American Samoa has found that the “climate effect” is quite strong, with the frequency of vowels in spoken language trending upwards along with a region’s average temperature. Since most vowel sounds carry farther than those of consonants, the correlation could be attributed to the need for people who spend more time outdoors to communicate across open spaces. However, Munroe said the definitive cause of the climate effect on language has yet to be determined. The research does confirm that “contrary to a longstanding assumption among linguists, phonetic systems around the world are not just arbitrary,” Munroe said.
Munroe has been working on this area of inquiry for about 15 years with a group of researchers that includes the late Ruth H. Munroe, a member of Pitzer’s founding faculty and professor of psychology, Professor of Linguistics Carmen Fought, Emeritus Professor of Linguistics Ronald Macaulay, linguist John Fought and Erin Good ’01, who majored in anthropology, along with alumni of The Claremont Colleges.
The article “Powers of Babel” can be found on the New Scientist website.