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 may 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.
Then the advent of the coronavirus pandemic led to the research finding that not only coughing and sneezing, but simply talking drives aerosolized viruses into the air. That’s one of the biggest reasons for the recommendation that everyone wear a mask and stay six feet part. Now it looks like not all talking leads to the same amount of droplets in the air. Instead, it depends on which language the speaker is using.
One of the first hints that there might be a difference in how viruses spread based on language came from observations made in China. Remarkably, this happened not during the Covid-19 pandemic, but during the first SARS outbreak with the SARS-CoV-1in South China. That virus led to over 8,000 cases were recorded in 26 countries.
At that time there were far more Japanese tourist than American ones in South China, yet Americans accounted for 70 cases of SARS-CoV-1 and Japan had no cases at all. How could that be? At the time, one explanation by scientists had to do with language. Since the staff of Chinese stores were generally multilingual, they typically spoke to US shoppers in English while they spoke to Japanese tourists in Japanese. And that matters because English is full of aspirated consonants while Japanese has few of them.
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 a myriad of 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.
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.
The study cited experimental limitations, such as making assumptions about the linguistic background of the speakers (which could impact how much they aspirate their consonants). The institution of social distancing measures at different rates could also have impacted these findings. They refer to their paper as a hypothesis, but a strong one and call for further studies.
The take home? Wearing masks is a practical way to mitigate this issue. When we talk in masks, we keep our droplets to ourselves.