Being a linguistics nerd, I've often wondered why the phonemic repertoire differs between different languages. Put more simply: why do languages all sound different?
I first ran into this -- although I had to have it pointed out to me -- with French and English. I grew up in a bilingual family (my mom's first language was French), so while I'd heard, and to a lesser extent spoken, French during my entire childhood I'd never noticed that there were sounds in one language that didn't occur in the other. When I took my first formal French class as a ninth-grader, the teacher told us that French has two sounds that don't occur in English at all -- the vowel sound in the pronoun tu (represented in the International Phonetic Alphabet as /y/) and the one in coeur (represented as /ø/). Also, the English r-sound (/r/) and the French r-sound (/ʁ/) aren't the same -- the English one doesn't occur in French, and vice-versa.
Not only are there different phonemes in different languages, the number of phonemes can vary tremendously. The Hawaiian language has only thirteen different phonemes: /a/, /e/, /i/, /o/, /u/, /k/, /p/, /h/, /m/, /n/, /l/, /w/, and /ʔ/. The last is the glottal stop -- usually represented in written Hawaiian as an apostrophe, as in the word for "circle" -- po'ai.
If you're curious, the largest phonemic inventory of any human language is Taa, one of the Khoisan family of languages, spoken mainly by people in western Botswana. Taa has 107 different phonemes, including 43 different "click consonants." If you want to hear the most famous example of a language with click consonants, check out this recording of the incomparable South African singer Miriam Makeba singing the Xhosa folk song "Qongqothwane:"
So if you've ever wondered why your language has the sounds it does, here's at least a partial explanation. I'll end with another video that is a must-watch, especially for Americans who are interested in regional accents. I live in upstate New York but was raised in Louisiana and spent ten years living in Seattle, so I've thought of my own speech as relatively homogenized, but maybe I should listen to myself more carefully.
Most people define the word culture in human terms. Language, music, laws, religion, and so on.
There is culture among other animals, however, perhaps less complex but just as fascinating. Monkeys teach their young how to use tools. Songbirds learn their songs from adults, they're not born knowing them -- and much like human language, if the song isn't learned during a critical window as they grow, then never become fluent.
Whales, parrots, crows, wolves... all have traditions handed down from previous generations and taught to the young.
All, therefore, have culture.
In Becoming Wild: How Animal Cultures Raise Families, Create Beauty, and Achieve Peace, ecologist and science writer Carl Safina will give you a lens into the cultures of non-human species that will leave you breathless -- and convinced that perhaps the divide between human and non-human isn't as deep and unbridgeable as it seems. It's a beautiful, fascinating, and preconceived-notion-challenging book. You'll never hear a coyote, see a crow fly past, or look at your pet dog the same way again.
[Note: if you purchase this book from the image/link below, part of the proceeds goes to support Skeptophilia!]
Fascinating post. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and insights.ReplyDelete