The Effects of Region & Geography on Language

Instructor: Sunday Moulton

Sunday earned a PhD in Anthropology and has taught college courses in Anthropology, English, and high school ACT/SAT Prep.

In this lesson, we'll look at physical factors influencing languages around the world. We'll see what creates regional dialects, how those can become their own languages, and why some climates encourage particular sounds in languages.

Do They Talk Funny or Is It Me?

Ever think about the way you talk? Maybe you have a strong southern drawl or you don't pronounce your ''Rs'' that strongly, like how Bostonians say ''cahhh'' instead of ''car.'' Maybe people have to strain to listen to your Cajun, or wonder what you mean in St. Louis, Missouri when you give directions and tell them to take highway ''Far D Far'' instead of 44.

Even if you don't speak like any of these examples, you've probably met someone who did. Ever wonder how these different ways of speaking the same language came to be, or even how a language like Latin changed over time to produce so many different languages, like French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian? A large part of these changes involves geography.

Approximate map of distinct dialects in the United States

Dialect or Language?

What some of us might call an accent is actually a dialect when the person speaking is expressing a variation of their native language. To explain this better: The southern drawl of a Texan who has only ever spoken English is a dialect. The way a person from Portugal pronounces English words in a way that it sounds more like his native language of Portuguese is an accent.

Dialects form slowly over an extended period of time, but their variations always come down to individual speakers. See, we all speak just a little differently than the next person, even in the same family. We might stress some sounds more, drop a letter, or use certain terms more than others. Even with these variations, most people in one area or particular group will share most features of speech in common, the dialect. So really, each person with their unique variations are just closer or farther from the average at the core of their dialect.

Spanish is spoken around the world, but the dialects are very different.
Spanish Map

Language, however, is constantly changing over time (meaning, in this case, spoken communication in general rather than a specific language like French or Korean). Those individual variations can be passed on to the next generation or subconsciously adopted by friends and neighbors as a result of regular communication. Over time, these new variations could become the normal way of speaking for people in a particular group. For example, if you try to read Chaucer's Canterbury Tales in the original writing, it might be difficult to believe you are reading English, but that just shows how far our language has drifted over time.

Where Does Geography Fit?

So how does geography fit into this process of drifting language and the formation of dialects? Well, a key part of the process of forming dialects comes from the isolation of speaking communities. As people move apart, they are less likely to have regular conversations with people across the country. Even now with telephones, our most regular interactions occur with people living nearby. This means that those variations adopted by the local group will be different from the variations adopted by a group in another location.

When these variations build up and the dialects of the two groups drift so far apart that speakers in one group cannot understand speakers in the other group, you have two different languages instead of different dialects. That's how French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, and Romanian all developed from their common origin of Latin.

Germanic Language Tree
germanic languages

Geographic Barriers

Geographic features that are more likely to promote language drift to form dialects or new languages include anything that limits or prohibits contact between groups of speakers. Long distances are less of a problem today thanks to technology, but before telephones speaking to someone far away involved long journeys and may have only happened once every few years. If those journeys also involved crossing treacherous mountains, vast oceans, deserts, or large forests without roadways, the journey might only occur once in a lifetime or be too perilous to attempt at all. These geographical features thus served to isolate groups and prevent the sharing of linguistic variations.

Mountains like the Himalayas can act as a barrier to communication.

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