On geographic determinism and nasal vowels in French

Dec 30, 2011 by

In a recent post, I discussed one example of geographic determinism applied to linguistic typology. The thinking behind geographic determinism is as follows: certain kinds of terrain or weather favor certain structural features in languages, so languages adapt to better suit their location. Today, I will examine one more example of a climatic explanation failing to account for properties of various languages. This often-cited example concerns nasal vowels in Romance languages: it is pointed out that, of the three major Romance languages, only French has nasal vowels, whereas Spanish and Italian do not. Why?

A climatic explanation has been at times proposed: after all, Standard French developed in the region of Paris, Île-de-France, which is  famously damp and foggy. Ergo, Parisians suffer from head colds, it is claimed. And those head colds are supposed to lead to nasality. It sounds reasonable. It sounds like it could be true. But it isn’t true. And as we shall see below, it doesn’t even sound reasonable, after all. In fact, this climatic explanation is dealt three serious blows.

The first problem concerns the alleged correlation between a cold and damp climate and the presence of nasal vowels in a language. For one, I can think of many places that are even more cold, damp, windy and foggy than Paris. Obviously, London comes to mind. So does my hometown of St. Petersburg (Russia). As does my current town, San Bruno (CA): I look out of the window and think I should be more nasal (if only the climatic explanation were right). Conversely, there are many warm and/or dry places where languages nonetheless feature nasal vowels. Such languages with nasal vowels (see map below) but spoken not in areas of cold/damp climate include: languages of tropical West Africa; Hunzib, spoken in a mountainous area of Dagestan (Northeastern Caucasus), where the climate is hot and dry in the summer though winters can be quite harsh; and Hindi, spoken for the most part in areas of hot and humid subtropical climate. Even if one limits one’s consideration to Romance languages, the climatic explanation cannot be maintained because of Portuguese, spoken in Portugal (whose Mediterranean climate is similar to that of Spain) and Brazil (most of which has a tropical climate).

But that’s just one problem. The second problem concerns the timing. After all, French didn’t get its nasal vowels yesterday. We are not sure exactly when nasal vowels made its appearance in French, but it must have been by 1100s, at which time manuscripts already indicate their presence in the language (Stephane Goyette, p.c.). But at the time, the climate in the Paris area was actually warmer than it is now. It was the beginning of what became known as the Medieval Warm Period (see chart below):

In other words, French got its nasal vowels when the climate was not all that cold and damp. They must have had fewer head colds then (if there is a direct connection between the climate and head colds at all!).

And there is a third reason to think that the climatic explanation for the presence of nasal vowels in French is bogus. To understand it, we have to consider more closely how nasal vowels are actually pronounced.To make a vowel sound nasal, the velum (that’s the soft palate, the fleshy part at the back of the roof of the mouth) must be lowered to let some of the air escape through the nasal cavity, as shown in the diagram on the left. Oral (i.e. non-nasal) vowels are pronounced with the velum raised, the entrance to the nasal cavity closed and all the air escaping through the mouth (see diagram on the right). But what happens when one has a head cold is that the nasal cavity is filled with mucus, which effectively makes it impossible for the air to escape through the nasal cavity. If you have a head cold and try to pronounce a nasal vowel, it will come out as oral (or more oral than normal, depending on how stuffy your nose is). M’s become B’s and N’s become D’s, etc. Next time you are unfortunate enough to have a head cold, try to pronounce the word man — it will come out sounding as bad (or try it today by pinching your nose closed as you pronounce it). Hence, head colds should actually prevent rather than encourage a nasal pronunciation!

That much for a climatiс explanation!


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