Functional explanations for geographical typological variation?

jess tauber phonosemantics at
Thu Mar 16 21:10:41 UTC 2006

I've read here and there (don't ask me if I can remember where/when) speculations that morphosyntactic type varied to some extent by latitude and elevation. Dunno if its true, and even if it is to some extent there are lots of exceptions. 

The claim: polysynthesis tends to be concentrated around higher elevations and away from the equator, whereas analytical languages are in lower ones and have a more equatorial distribution.

At first blush one notes that part of any truth to this could have to do with subsistence patterns- agriculture does very well indeed in the warmer, wetter areas (equatorial, low elevation), whereas animal husbandry or hunting/gathering will be found more in dryer, colder areas (poleward, high elevation).

Obviously resource abundance must be taken as a factor- population size and packing density of different populations (such as between California on the one hand, and the Arctic/Subarctic, on the other), and people DO move.

But anyway, this little tidbit just crossed my screen: (

It seems that the degree of sociality in stingless sweat bees varies in just such a fashion. Quoting one researcher: "In modern halictid bees, social behavior varies among species and even within species as a function of latitude and altitude such that species and populations at low latitudes and in warmer regions are often fully social, whereas they are solitary at higher latitudes and altitudes, which are colder."

The piece continues- >Warmer regions have longer growing seasons, he explained, which allows two broods to emerge instead of one. The first brood (workers) helps raise the second brood (reproductives).<

Yet- "Other social insects (such as ants, termites, paper wasps and honey bees) have reached 'a point of no return' in social evolution in which members of the lineage are now unable to revert back to a solitary condition. These insects, however, seem to be able to revert fairly easily," he concluded.

Now whether this sort of thing is relevant to a human linguistic typological distribution which is itself hypothetical is at least an open question. But sometimes one can look outside ourselves to gain comparative insights, for instance geographically/environmentally motivated acoustic signal variation in animals versus perhaps similar variation in human language phonologies? Most of the very fortis phonologies are found in mountainous and other, harsher regions?

Cosmopolitan societies tend to concentrate in warmer, wetter areas, develop a great deal of internal stratification/hierarchicalization, etc. which allow a single polity or overarching social identity to keep all the needed social/technical roles under one roof. Perhaps with more isolated societies many of the roles become externalized- specialization between groups which trade for goods and services they themselves cannot provide (at least as well).

The hills have eyes....

Jess Tauber
phonosemantics at

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