A careful statistical examination of words from 6,000+ languages shows that humans tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas, no matter what language they’re speaking.
Geographic distribution of the 6,452 word lists analyzed in this study. Colors distinguish different linguistic macroareas, regions with relatively little or no contact between them (but with much internal contact between their populations). These are North America (orange), South America (dark green), Eurasia (blue), Africa (green), Papua New Guinea and the Pacific Islands (red), and Australia (fuchsia). Image credit: Damián E. Blasi et al.
The new research, led by Prof. Morten Christiansen of Cornell University, demonstrates a robust statistical relationship between certain basic concepts – from body parts to familial relationships and aspects of the natural world – and the sounds humans around the world use to describe them.
“These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of language lineage,” Prof. Christiansen said.
“There does seem to be something about the human condition that leads to these patterns. We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s there.”
Prof. Christiansen and his colleagues from Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland analyzed 40-100 basic vocabulary words in 62% of the world’s more than 6,000 current languages and 85 percent of its linguistic lineages.
“The dataset used for this study is drawn from version 16 of the Automated Similarity Judgment Program database,” they explained.
“The data consist of 28–40 lexical items from 6,452 word lists, with a subset of 328 word lists having up to 100 items. The word lists include both languages and dialects, spanning 62% of the world’s languages and about 85% of its lineages.”
The words included pronouns, body parts and properties (small, full), verbs that describe motion and nouns that describe natural phenomena (star, fish).
The scientists found a considerable proportion of the 100 basic vocabulary words have a strong association with specific kinds of human speech sounds.
For instance, in most languages, the word for ‘nose’ is likely to include the sounds ‘neh’ or the ‘oo’ sound, as in ‘ooze.’
The word for ‘tongue’ is likely to have ‘l’ or ‘u.’
‘Leaf’ is likely to include the sounds ‘b,’ ‘p’ or ‘l.’
‘Sand’ will probably use the sound ‘s.’
The words for ‘red’ and ‘round’ often appear with ‘r,’ and ‘small’ with ‘i.’
“It doesn’t mean all words have these sounds, but the relationship is much stronger than we’d expect by chance. The associations were particularly strong for words that described body parts. We didn’t quite expect that,” Prof. Christiansen said.
The researchers also found certain words are likely to avoid certain sounds. This was especially true for pronouns.
For example, words for ‘I’ are unlikely to include sounds involving u, p, b, t, s, r and l.
‘You’ is unlikely to include sounds involving u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r and l.
The team’s findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, challenge one of the most basic concepts in linguistics: the century-old idea that the relationship between a sound of a word and its meaning is arbitrary.
The researchers don’t know why humans tend to use the same sounds across languages to describe basic objects and ideas.
“These concepts are important in all languages, and children are likely to learn these words early in life,” Prof. Christiansen said.
“Perhaps these signals help to nudge kids into acquiring language.”
“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.”
Damián E. Blasi et al. Sound–meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages. PNAS, published online September 12, 2016; doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605782113
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