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Do You Speak Too Loudly? Your Environment Might Be to Blame
Speech volume can be predicted by the average temperature of the local environment.
When John Crichton (Ben Browder) accidentally slipped through a wormhole to the other side of the galaxy, he must have been met with a mixture of excitement and frustration. The various intelligent species of Farscape (streaming now on Peacock) would likely communicate in ways literally alien to us. Not only would we have different languages, developed through different evolutionary processes, but we might not even speak in the same register.
New research published in the journal PNAS Nexus found a relationship between the average temperature of an environment and the volume of speech. Depending on the environment that his alien counterparts evolved in, Crichton's boldest shouts might be little more than a whisper to their ears, if they could even hear him at all.
How Environment Impacts Sound
We often think of sound as being a consistent phenomenon, playing out the same way no matter where you are, but that’s not the case. Sound travels differently through different mediums – in our case that’s usually the air around us – and everything from atmospheric composition to temperature can impact how it sounds. Over the course of hundreds or thousands of years, the small differences in local air conditions drive changes in the default way people speak, according to the study.
To get a better grip on what’s going on, let’s hop over to Mars and its dramatically different environmental conditions. Believe it or not, the Red Planet does have an atmosphere, but it’s thin (less than 1% the air pressure of Earth), roughly 95% carbon dioxide, and comparatively cold. As a result, the air on Mars does funny things with sound. Not only does sound travel more slowly on Mars than it does on Earth, but low frequency sounds travel even more slowly than high frequency sounds. If you were listening to a Martian symphony from a medium distance, you might hear the base come in a few beats after the strings.
On Earth, local variation in temperature, density, and humidity changes the way sound travels, just like it does on Mars. Higher temperatures, for instance, are better at absorbing high frequency sounds and the creatures (human or otherwise) which live in warm places tend to adapt by getting louder.
The Volume of Human Speech Changes with Temperature
Researchers used data from the Automated Similarity Judgement Program (ASJP) database which contains vocabularies for 5,293 languages. That’s roughly three quarters of the more than 7,000 known languages spoken around the world. They looked at the average sonority (volume of speech sounds) across languages and then plotted them on a map.
When the volume was measured and everything put in its place, researchers found a nearly universal relationship between average annual temperature and volume. With a few exceptions, languages with high sonority clustered around the equator and average volume dropped at higher latitudes. In general, as humanity stretched out into more frigid ecosystems, the average volume of those groups dropped.
While this relationship was consistent from one language family to the next, there was some variability in sonority within language families. That suggests that the environmental impact on speaking volume is slow moving and takes centuries or longer to have a measurable effect. Taken to its logical end, that might mean that aliens who evolved in dramatically different environments from our own – environments with particularly extreme average temperatures – would speak in inaudible whispers or ear-piercing shouts.
Apparently, Crichton’s translator microbes take care of the volume problem too. Otherwise, it would be impossible to enjoy Farscape, streaming now on Peacock.