Scientists have in an analysis of nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages found that humans tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas, no matter what language they speak.
The research, shattered the cornerstone concept in linguistics and demonstrated 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, researchers said.
“These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of language lineage,” said Professor and Cognitive scientist Morten H. Christiansen, of Cornell University in New York, US.
“There does seem to be something about the human condition that leads to these patterns. We do not know what it is, but we know it’s there,” Christiansen added.
For example, in most languages, the word for ‘nose’ is likely to include the sounds ‘neh’ or the ‘oo’ sound, as in ‘ooze'; for ‘tongue’ an ‘l’ (as in “langue” in French).
Similarly ‘leaf’ would include the sounds ‘b’, ‘p’ or ‘l'; ‘sand’ uses the sound ‘s’, also words for ‘red’ and ’round’ would include the ‘r’ sound.
“It doesn’t mean all words have these sounds, but the relationship is much stronger than we’d expect by chance,” Christiansen said.
The associations were particularly strong for words that described body parts.
The team 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 researchers observed.
For the study, an international team of physicists, linguists and computer scientists from Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland analysed 40-100 basic vocabulary words in 62 per cent of the world’s more than 6,000 current languages and 85 per cent of its linguistic lineages.
The words included pronouns, body parts and properties (small, full), verbs that describe motion and nouns that describe natural phenomena (star, fish).
They found a considerable proportion of the 100 basic vocabulary words have a strong association with specific kinds of human speech sounds.
“The results of the study are conservative; the actual number of sound symbolism patterns may in fact be even greater,” Christiansen said.
The findings 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 do not know why humans tend to use the same sounds across languages to describe basic objects and ideas.
But these concepts are important in all languages, and children are likely to learn these words early in life, Christiansen noted in the paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.