languagesounds

What’s in a word? Languages use similar sounds for the same objects

Scientists find that humans tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas.

Forgotten the word? Knowing another language might help. Research has found that words for different objects and ideas often contain the same sounds in thousands of languages around the world.

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The study of nearly 4000 languages has challenged one of the most basic concepts in linguistics – that sounds and their meanings only have an arbitrary relationship.

The team behind the research, a group of physicists, linguists and computer scientists in Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, analysed up to 100 words from almost two-thirds of the world’s 6000 languages. What they found surprised them: there was a clear statistical relationship between certain concepts or objects and the sounds that people use to describe them.

Mysteriously, the connection is particularly strong for body parts. For example, words for “nose” often include a “neh” or “oo” sound, and the word for “tongue” is likely to have a letter l (as in “langue” in French).

It doesn’t end there. The word for “leaf” is likely to include a b, p or l; the word for “sand” often contains an s; the words for “red” and “round” tend to include an r.

Certain words are also likely to avoid certain sounds – you’re less likely to find a u, p, b, t, s, r or l in words for “I”, and “you” is unlikely to include u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r or l sounds in most languages.

“These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of language lineage,” says Morton H. Christiansen, a professor of psychology and director of Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. “There does seem to be something about the human condition that leads to these patterns.”

The question now is why the sounds are so often similar. “Perhaps these signals help nudge kids into acquiring language,” suggests Christiansen. “[It’s] likely it has something to do with the human mind or brain, our ways of interacting, or signals we use when we learn or process language. That’s a key question for future research.”


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