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How Climate Shapes Culture

I love world-building. I love drawing maps and inventing cultures and extrapolating from plot fragments to figure out the habits of a society. In fact, now that I think about it, I world-built long before I realized that I wanted to be a writer.

What I've discovered since moving to Germany is that culture is more dependent on climate than I'd ever suspected. Example: the dorf I live in features adorable steepled houses and grassy, overgrown walls of unhewn stones. For a long time, I considered these to be cultural affectations. People had built things that way because they found it aesthetic, right?


Or at least, mostly-wrongo. It is aesthetic, but it's also a direct result of geography and geology. The soil here is rocky. You can't dig more than a handsbreadth into the ground without hitting stone; some of them very large stones. Anytime someone clears a field for agriculture, or digs a foundation for a house, or clears ground for an attractive lawn, they're going to end up digging up piles of rock. They could cart the rocks away, of course, but it's aesthetic and convenient to just pile them along the border of the property. Saves the trouble of building a fence, and all.

Combine the prevelence of rocks with lots of rainfall, and you get cobblestone roads, which are also pretty common around here. Asphalt's recently taken over as the road material of choice, but for centuries, if you wanted to walk around without getting your shoes muddy, cobblestone was the way to go.

Steepled roofs? Let's just say I dare you to find a culture anywhere, at any period of history, that constructed flat-roofed buildings in areas with heavy snowfall.

Climate doesn't just affect architecture. Consider customs like taking a Siesta at noon and then partying or working long into the night. Map out regions of the world where these customs are common, and you'll see they occur primarily in regions that are extremely hot over the day; too hot to work or party effectively at noon.

How about language? Have you ever been out in freezing cold weather for hours, and discovered that it was difficult to talk afterward? Certain phonemes, especially the American 'r' and 'th' sounds, are extremely difficult to pronounce when your face is numb. Now I'm no linguist, but I bet if you tracked it, you'd find that languages from Scandinavia and northern Europe have dropped precisely those sounds that are difficult to make in sub-zero weather.*

Ever heard the observation that the closer you get to the equator, the more open and friendly the culture becomes? Yeah. Try smiling when your face is frozen. Cultures that developed in areas with harsh winters would need to rely on social cues other than facial expressions.

Ever wondered why so many Renaissance painters came from Italy and France? I could be way off-base on this, but think about the weather for a moment. Italy's warm. It's easy for an artist to work year-round on, oh, say, a mural that covers the ceiling of a chapel, or a free-standing sculpture. It must be nice to not have your paints thicken up unless you stand near the fire during winter, too.

Is all of this based on conjecture? You betcha. And I may be wrong about some of the details. But my point is that climate affects culture far more than we generally realize. And as writers, we can use this knowlege to add vibrancy to our worlds.

Let's look at one more example: cooking.

I grew up in northern California, basically a desert. My Mom (and primary cooking instructor) grew up in Utah. Also a desert. We baked our potatoes in the oven. We baked a lot of things in the oven, in fact, and tended to steam or sautee vegetables rather than boiling them.

When I came to Germany, I thought it was the weirdest thing to boil potatoes in water, but that's the way everyone did it. They cook a lot of things in water here, in fact, and crock pots and casseroles are practically unheard of.

Cultural? Maybe. But it's also environmental. Because if you lived in the desert in the days before indoor plumbing, the last thing you wanted to do was waste water. Why boil your potatoes when you could bake them instead?

Okay, I'm throwing this one out to the peanut gallery now. What other customs appear at first glance to be cultural, but are actually influenced by environment?

*Several people have contested the 'th' thing in the comments. I haven't seen enough evidence to be convinced that I'm wrong, but the veracity of the statement is definitely up for dispute.



( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 14th, 2011 05:49 pm (UTC)
The one that immediately comes to mind is food flavoring. Hotter climates tend to produce spicier food than colder climates because that's where spices grow. I also vaguely remember that spices help the food stay fresh, which is less a concern when you can easily keep it chilled in a cold climate.
Nov. 14th, 2011 06:15 pm (UTC)

languages from Scandinavia and northern Europe have dropped precisely those sounds that are difficult to make in sub-zero weather.

Interesting concept indeed...

Nov. 14th, 2011 06:18 pm (UTC)
I think you've got a point but I'm fairly sure the "th" theory is wrong. "th" seems to be a hard sound for many peoples all around the world (e.g. the French and Italians) not just people from icy climes.

The steep roof for snow thing is absolutely true. You can see it quite clearly when you drive from (say) the Riviera to the mountains just an hour or two away. Near the coast you have very gently angled roofs but as soon as you get above about 1500m they are anything but gentle.

One thing to recall is that the whole world changed drastically in the early 1500s with all the introductions from the new world (potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers...) and while we've had 500 years to adapt a lot of things that seem like they are traditional (think of Ireland and the potato for example or all those italian recipes for tomatoes, let alone the SE Asian delight in chili peppers) don't go as far back in history as you might think.

One interesting one is the (European) wine/beer/vodka divisions. Basically wine is popular where it can be grown but as you go further north you get beer. Vodka (and for that matter whisky) seem to occur in the places where you don't want to waste perfectly good barley on booze.
Nov. 14th, 2011 09:55 pm (UTC)

Wine, not beer, because grapes grow easy in dry land, but grain does not.

Sheep cheese where it's too hot for cows, cow cheese where it's cool enough -- Spain has marked regional differences.

Dry-cured ham because it's dry here.

Lots of bricks for construction, but not so much wood. Not enough water for forests in many parts of the country. And lots of stone, depending on where you are.

Olive oil, not butter, because there aren't a lot of cows but there are endless acres of olive trees.

I grew up in Wisconsin. The building I'm in would collapse in a Wisconsin winter. The walls aren't insulated enough, the plumbing would freeze, and the flat roof -- well, you already know that.

But the warm weather combined with other factors makes for lots of street life. Young and old, people here walk around just for fun.
Nov. 14th, 2011 10:05 pm (UTC)
I throw around your Scandinavian idea as silliness, because it sounds way too twisted, but maybe there is some truth to it. I know that Hebrew sounds like people who walk around with their mouths absolutely parched from the heat.
h lynn keith
Nov. 15th, 2011 11:10 am (UTC)
"Certain phonemes, especially the American 'r' and 'th' sounds, are extremely difficult to pronounce when your face is numb. Now I'm no linguist, but I bet if you tracked it, you'd find that languages from Scandinavia and northern Europe have dropped precisely those sounds that are difficult to make in sub-zero weather."

This statement does not agree with historical facts.

Frisian is the mother of English. Ancient Frisia <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/frisia> stretched from the Low Countries to Denmark.

Greek and Hindi have the 'th'. I think Hebrew does, too. (Hindi spelling distinguishes between the 'th' sound in 'thimble' and the sound in 'that'.) Castilliano Spanish makes the 'th' sound but only because they lisp the 's'.

I speak 7 languages with fluency that varies with the amount of practice. The 'R' sound is different in all of them; that is, each language has a unique way to make the 'R' sound.

The idea that geography determines culture reminds me of Michener's devotion to voluminous descriptions of the land in _Centennial_. Or anything that Michener wrote.

The environment shaped apparel in Texas. The hats, the chaps, the gloves, and the boots were responses to the sun and the sage brush and the mesquite. The gauchos of Argentina devised other solutions.
Nov. 15th, 2011 02:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Languages
I have to correct a few errors of fact in your comment.

The language currently called "Frisian" is not the mother of English. Rather, both Frisian and English are descendants from the Anglo-Saxon language spoken in Europe in the 7th to 8th centuries, before the Saxons invaded Britain.

Hindi does not have the "th" sound that we're referring to here. The sounds spelled "th" and "dh" in Hindi transliteration refer to voiceless and voiced aspirated alveolar stops respectively, not to the labio-dental fricatives that English spells with "th".

Castilian Spanish does not "lisp the s", in that the Castilian "lisp" is not the result of a mutation of the original "s" sound. The pronunciation of the letters "z" and "c" as "th" in this dialect of Spanish is actually the older pronunciation, which was once common to the entire Spanish peninsula. The other dialects of Spanish lack this sound because they've LOST the distinction between "s" and "th" -- proving, incidentally, that the loss of "th" sounds is by no means limited to cold climes.
Nov. 15th, 2011 02:09 pm (UTC)
Here's some solid evidence regarding the 'th' question. There is a site called WALS which contains a database of different language features and will happily map them for you, and the following map shows the distribution of languages with "th" sounds:


(You might want to hide the options that don't include the "th" sounds in order to see the distribution better.)

As the preceding map shows, "th" sounds are found scattered all over the world. There are four in Russia (those being indigenous Siberian and Uralic languages, not dialects of Russian), one in Alaska, and one in northern Canada. And note that there are lots of languages which don't appear on this list, since WALS aims to include a few languages from every language family, so some well-known languages with "th" don't show up here. (Icelandic, for example.)

There is little, if any, correlation between climate and the presence of these sounds.
Nov. 15th, 2011 02:13 pm (UTC)
Dangit. Does anybody know how to get LJ to display an actual link?
Nov. 15th, 2011 02:41 pm (UTC)
Nov. 15th, 2011 02:39 pm (UTC)
Wow. I am now convinced. Thanks!
Nov. 15th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC)
I heard an NPR spotlight on the book 1493 by Charles Mann. I haven't been able to read it yet (trying to get that pesky business of graduating out of the way first), but the spotlight made the book sound really interesting. It's about how biological and environmental issues helped shape history and culture in the post-Colombian world.

For example, Europeans tend to be susceptible to malaria. General Cornwallis' forces had as much trouble fighting mosquitoes and they did fighting the rebel army -- a possible deciding factor in the Revolutionary War. Africans are more resilient to malaria, so in the more malaria-prone south, it made more economic sense use African slaves instead of European indentured servants. The Mason Dixon line runs right along the line that divides mosquito-friendly climates from non-mosquito friendly ones. The little pests helped decide how the Civil War shaped up, too.

So there's my book recommendation for a book I'll be reading next year. While I'm compiling my list, are there any books out there that talk about how climate shapes language?
Nov. 15th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
That sounds like a fascinating book.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )




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