The Way Americans Talk May Have Made COVID So Much Worse, Study Says
One linguist has a theory about the English language and the spread of coronavirus.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on continents across the globe, with some countries hit harder than others. Possible explanations for that disparity range from politics to population density, but one linguist has a new theory that has to do with the way we speak. He proposes that it's actually Americans' aspirated consonants that have helped make the COVID epidemic in the U.S. so much worse.
An aspirated consonant is a letter that we pronounce with a strong burst of breath—in English in the U.S., that includes "P," "T," and "K." When we say these letters, "numerous small droplets are released from the respiratory passages of a speaker into the air," according to new research from RUDN University. In the study, slated for publication in the November issue of Medical Hypotheses, linguist Georgios Georgiou, PhD, looked into whether countries whose languages include more aspirated consonants have experienced more virulent coronavirus outbreaks.
The theory is that when we use aspirated consonants, we are potentially spreading more viral particles into the air than when we don't. Speakers who don't use aspirated consonants—those in countries whose languages simply don't include many—would naturally be expelling fewer respiratory droplets, which could actually mitigate the spread of COVID.
And while this may seem like a somewhat wild explanation for the exponential growth of coronavirus in the U.S., the idea had been proposed prior to Georgiou's new research. In 2003, The Lancet published a study examining a similar hypothesis, suggesting that the limited number of aspirated consonants in Japanese could explain why SARS had not spread in Japan.
For the more recent study, Georgiou and his team divided countries into groups based on the use of aspirated consonants in their dominant languages. Ultimately, countries that used more aspirated consonants did have more COVID cases among their population—but the difference was minimal enough that it couldn't be called statistically significant.
"Although no clear relationship was observed, we do not rule out that the spread of COVID-19 can be partially due to the presence of aspirated consonants in a country's main language of communication," Georgiou said in a statement. "This can be a valuable insight for epidemiologists."
In the meantime, we do know that there are other ways our manner of speaking could affect coronavirus transmission. Epidemiologists have noted that speaking loudly can spread the virus, which is why it's important to continue wearing masks to limit the number of respiratory droplets expelled—no matter how many aspirated consonants you're using. And for more on the spread of COVID, Expect a Massive Surge in COVID Cases After This Date, Experts Say.