English – a public health hazard?

Schermafdruk 2020-05-30 10.24.28Might the incidence of Covid-19 in this place or that depend to some degree on the main language spoken there? A reader from Italy asked me this a few days ago. Being a polyglot, he had first come up with the idea himself; it was then reinforced by a Japanese video that has been making the rounds. This shows how the English aspirated /p/ sound causes an eruption of breath, potentially sending loads of viruses into the air in front of the speaker. So are some languages, including English, more conducive to infection than others?

Apparently, my correspondent is not the only one who’s been wondering about this. In John McWhorter’s most recent Lexicon Valley podcast, he addresses the same issue in response to questions from listeners.

Interestingly, even though John and I agree on the answer – which is, roughly, ‘no’ –, we approach the issue very differently. He points out that while, yes, Japan has been hit much less by the pandemic than the US and the UK, the pattern elsewhere in the world is not what you would expect on the basis of these linguistic differences. Spain has been severely affected, even though Spanish pronunciation doesn’t have any characteristics one would expect in a ‘contagious’ language. And in the Middle East, Iran has been an epicentre of Covid-19 while Iraq hasn’t, even though Iraqi Arabic would appear to be a much more effective spreader of viruses, given its inventory of phonemes.

My take on the question was as follows: ‘These linguistic differences might conceivably play a minor role. However, languages and the cultures in which they are spoken differ in many respects. Even if we only look at personal communication, I think there are differences in: typical loudness; typical amount of speech; typical physical distance between speakers; and typical frequency of touching each other.

And that’s without mentioning other differences between societies, for instance in time spent outdoors (which is safer) versus indoors (riskier), in average health, in willingness to heed governmental advice, in hand-washing habits, in availability of sanitation, in numbers of foreign visitors, in climate, in use of public transport, and so on and so forth.’

Of course I hope that all of you will stay healthy. But I think you can safely continue to speak English, if that’s what you do. No need to learn Japanese.

8 thoughts on “English – a public health hazard?

  1. Yeah, right, “great throat-clearer”, the Spanish, because in Nederlands you don’t have that
    “phlegm-churning jota phoneme”… That is precisely why I was so proficient at learning to pronounce words like “gegeven” or “gisteren”, because I am a Spaniard. So much about “throat-clearer”, “germs spreading languages” like my variant of Spanish versus others like Nederlands. Good job there, you two!

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    • Haha, you’re perfectly right of course. I’d say the Dutch ‘jota’ (de scherpe g) is even more harrowing. But then, Bill and I weren’t discussing Dutch, just Spanish versus English.

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  2. One of the most contagion-spreading sounds around must be the Castilian Spanish phlegm-churning jota phoneme. All you have to do is say “Jorge es un ingeniero de Jaez“ and you’ve spread enough germs, “germen”, around for a whole pueblo to get sick on.

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    • Hi Bill! Frankly, I’m not so sure. Great throat-clearer, the Spanish j. But I doubt that the breath is expelled all that strongly. Keep a hand in front of your mouth and say Spanish j, then English p: when I try this, p wins by a wide margin.

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