January 21, 2004

SARS spread via aspiration

Dr. Sakae Inouye (Otsuma Women's University, Tokyo) has published a letter in the medical journal The Lancet arguing that we should in part blame the phonology of Chinese and English for the outbreak of SARS in China and among English speakers.

Inouye observes that SARS is "transmitted via droplets spread by infected individuals. Droplets are generated when patients cough and, to a lesser extent, when they talk during the early stages of disease". She goes on to note that both English and Chinese make use of aspiration in their consonantal systems. This aspiration is, she claims, a likely source of droplet spread. Her support for this linguistic explanation is that Japanese lacks aspirated constants and, "as of mid June 2003, the number of probable cases of SARS in Japan remained zero", though millions of Japanese people visit China each year.

So we have a nice argument for the old "say it, don't spray it" mantra:

A Chinese attendant in a souvenir shop probably speaks to American tourists in English, and to Japanese tourists in Japanese. If the shop assistant is in the early stages of SARS and has no cough, I believe American tourists would, hence, be exposed to the infectious droplets to a greater extent than would Japanese tourists.

A story about Inouye's hypothesis appeared in yesterday's Guardian (here). It was also picked up by the Annals of Improbable Research (here). The original letter in the The Lancet is not available freely on the Net, but here is the reference for those of you who have subscriptions of the e- or paper kind:

Inouye, Sakae. 2004. SARS transmission: language and droplet production, The Lancet, Volume 362, Issue 9378, 12 July 2003, Page 170.

Many thanks to John Kingston for bringing this item to my attention.

Posted by Christopher Potts at January 21, 2004 09:40 PM