After analyzing almost two-thirds of all the languages in the world, researchers are saying that people have a tendency to use the same sounds to refer to common objects and ideas regardless of the language they speak.
In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Cornell University's Morten H. Christiansen and colleagues showed that basic concepts, like body parts and familial relationships, and the sounds that people around the world turn to in describing them have a robust statistical relationship.
"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 Christiansen.
The researchers noted that they have not determined what it is in people that give rise to these patterns but they know that it is there. Maybe it's a way to help children learn languages? Maybe it's a universal way for people to interact with one another? They are looking to solve this mystery in their future research.
In their analysis, Christiansen and colleagues discovered that most languages will include the sounds "oo" (as in "ooze") or "neh" for the word "nose," while "leaf" will almost always include the sounds "l," "p," or "b."
According to Christiansen, not all words will adhere to the trends they outlined in their study, but the relationships they observed were stronger than expected. Additionally, there was a particularly strong association of words used for body parts.
For the study, the researchers analyzed between 40 and 100 basic words across 62 percent of the 6,000 plus languages in the world, as well as 85 percent of their related linguistic lineages. The words they used included pronouns, adjectives, verbs describing motion and nouns referring to things in nature, like "fish" and "stars."
The results of their findings showed a significant portion of the words they used were strongly associated with certain kinds of sounds in human speech. The researchers believe that their findings are conservative, but their study still challenges one of the most basic of linguistic concepts: that the relationship between the meaning of a word and its sound is arbitrary.
Linguists have encountered evidence before to counter this arbitrariness, but most research from the past 20 years have only focused on certain relationships between word and sound or involved a small language set. As such, no one has been able to show if sound symbolism truly persists in world languages or not. That is, until the current study was released.
Christiansen was joined by University of Zurich's Damian Blasi, University of Leiden's Soeren Wichmann, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History's Harald Hammarström, and University of Leipzig's Peter Stadler for the study.
Photo: Valery Kenski | Flickr