NOTE – Wikipedia lists the following languages as having NO aspirated consonants: French, Standard Dutch, Afrikaans, Tamil, Finnish, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Polish, Latvian and Modern Greek are languages that do not have phonemic aspirated consonants. Yet France, Spain & Italy have some of the highest covid-19 case loads in the world.
New research suggests that English speakers put more droplets into the air when they talk, which may make them more likely to spread COVID-19. Since the novel coronavirus is spread by droplets, how spitty a language is might contribute to different rates of the disease. It all comes down to something called aspirated consonants, the sounds we make that spray more droplets of saliva into the air.
In college, everyone knew which professors spit the most when they lectured. The front rows of their classes were always empty after the first day of class, because the high achievers who sat there had been bathed with the lecturer’s saliva. When a lecture was particularly boring, students might find themselves fascinated by the way the sunlight caught droplets of spit, hanging in the air around the professor.
Memories of teachers who were the loud talkers is one thing. Yet now we know that simply speaking English could mean we are all spitting on the people around us.
Coronavirus spreads by aerosol particles
We all know the coughing or sneezing spreads germs, that’s how we get colds and the flu every year. That spread occurs because coughing or sneezing projects high velocity droplets full of viruses from our nose and throat into the air around us. That’s why we are told to cough into our elbows and wash our hands frequently prior to Covid-19.
Aspirated consonants throw spit into the air.
While Japanese has few aspirated consonants leading speakers to produce little spit while talking, English has three of them. Specifically, the consonants [p] [t] and [k] are aspirated in English. Making those sounds throws myriad tiny droplets from the speaker’s respiratory tract into the air, creating a cloud of spit. If that person is carrying a virus, the air is now full of viral particles.
Up until now the prospect of a spitty talker might be disgusting, but we never considered that it could put us at risk for a deadly disease. Covid-19 has changed all that, which is why researchers at RUDN University studied whether people who speak languages with aspirated continents have a higher rate of the novel coronavirus infection.
The study looked at data from 26 countries with more than 1000 Covid-19 cases as of March 23, 2020. That’s a useful window of time because that would be before mask-wearing was widespread. The countries were grouped by whether the languages predominantly spoken contained aspirated consonants or not. The data included a large number of languages, including English.
There were indeed more cases of coronavirus infection in countries that spoke languages with aspirated consonants. These countries showed 255 cases of Covid-19 per 1 million residents, while the countries where the languages had few aspirated consonants had 206 cases of Covid-19 per 1 million residents. Technically these numbers did not achieve statistical significance, but the observation is interesting nonetheless.