For many, the hardest part of learning to speak Chinese is mastering its complex tonal variations. Now, new research suggests a surprising explanation for how those tones arose: a humid climate. By examining the correlation between humidity and the role of tone in more than 3700 languages, scientists found that tonal languages are remarkably rare in arid regions like Central Europe, whereas languages with complex tone pitches are prevalent in relatively humid regions such as the tropics, subtropical Asia, and Central Africa. Humidity keeps the voice box moist and elastic, allowing it to produce correct and complex tones, the scientists explain online this month in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “If the United Kingdom had been a humid jungle, English may also have developed into a tonal language,” they claim. So, next time you go to your Chinese class, don’t forget to wet your whistle!
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