Deep Links Found Across Languages

Even the most different-sounding languages are more alike than previously thought.Even the most different-sounding languages are more alike than previously thought.

After analyzing nearly 2/3 of all human languages, scientists say people tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas. While the linguistic links between sound and meaning are not universal, the relationship is much stronger than expected.

Humans currently speak more than 6,000 languages, from Abaza to Mandarin to Zulu. But regardless of their origins, even the most different-sounding languages may be more alike than previously thought, reports the Mother Nature Network, the world’s most visited online network for news and information on the environment and living.

In the new study, published this week by an international team of linguists, mathematicians and psychologists at Cornell University, scientists analyzed 40 to 100 basic words from 62% of all current human languages, representing 85% of linguistic lineages, to investigate links between the sounds and meanings of words.

People often use the same sounds for common objects and ideas, they found, no matter what language is being spoken.

This goes beyond onomatopoeia — words like “buzz” or “boom” that imitate the sounds they describe — and includes an array of concepts such as body parts, animals and motion verbs. The sounds do not actually mimic what they represent, yet are still mysteriously linked to meaning.

“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 co-author and Cornell University psychology professor Morten Christiansen.

“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.”

For example, the word for “nose” is likely to include the sounds “neh” or “oo”, while the words for “red” and “round” tend to feature an “r” sound.

Words for “leaf” are likely to include the sounds “b,” “p” or “l”, and words for “sand” tend to use an “s” sound.

This finding “shatters a cornerstone concept of linguistics,” says a Cornell statement about the study, since researchers have long believed the sounds of most words are disconnected from their meaning.