In the 10th century, an Arab geographer described the Caucasus region as a "mountain of tongues." The nickname has stuck to this day, likely because of how well it captures two of the area's main features: its dramatic cliffs and its array of languages.
But new and controversial research by a U.S. linguist suggests that the "mountains" may have more to do with the "tongues" than anyone has guessed.
In a study published last month in the journal "Plos One," Caleb Everett, an anthropological linguist at the University of Miami, claims that a special class of sounds occurring in almost all of the languages of the Caucasus may be due to "the direct influence" of the region's high altitude.
Everett's conclusion applies beyond the Caucasus as well. He offers apparent proof that the rare sounds, known as "ejectives," are far more likely to occur in regions of high elevation worldwide.
That argument -- and the physical and biological factors that Everett says may explain the correlation -- are generating plenty of buzz, and a range of reactions, among linguists.
"The assumption made by linguists is that geography can impact language, but in sort of superficial ways: If you live in the Amazon, you're not going to have words for 'snow-capped mountains,'" Everett said. "But linguists have traditionally been skeptical that geography can affect the structure of language, things like phonology -- the sound system -- of a language. I think this is really good evidence [of that]."