A Common Language

Researchers at Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab suggest that all humans may share one common ancestral language. This is regardless of our geographic diversity and seemingly independent linguistic family trees.

Having studied linguistics I can attest that one of its fundamental tenets holds that the sound of a word and its meaning tends to be an arbitrary relationship. Recently, a number of fascinating studies have shown that this linkage may not be as arbitrary as first thought.

For instance, words for small, prickly things — across numerous languages — are likely to be made up of high-pitched, “spiky” sounds, known as “kiki”. On the other hand, words for smoother, round objects are likely to contain “ooo” or “ou” sounds, known as “bouba”.

A great overview of the current thinking comes courtesy of  Scientific American’s recent article “‘R’ Is For Red: Common Words Share Similar Sounds in Many Languages“.

From Scientific American:

In English, the word for the sniffing appendage on our face is nose. Japanese also happens to use the consonant n in this word (hana) and so does Turkish (burun). Since the 1900s, linguists have argued that these associations between speech sounds and meanings are purely arbitrary. Yet a new study calls this into question.

Together with his colleagues, Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich analyzed lists of words from 4,298 different languages. In doing so, they discovered that unrelated languages often use the same sounds to refer to the same meaning. For example, the consonant r is often used in words for red—think of French rouge, Spanish rojo, and German rot, but also Turkish k?rm?z?, Hungarian piros, and Maori kura.

The idea is not new. Previous studies have suggested that sound-meaning associations may not be entirely arbitrary, but these studies were limited by small sample sizes (200 languages or fewer) and highly restricted lists of words (such as animals only). Blasi’s study, published this month in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, is notable because it included almost two thirds of the world’s languages and used lists of diverse words, including pronouns, body parts,verbs,natural phenomena,and adjectives—such as we, tongue, drink, star and small, respectively.

The scope of the study is unprecedented, says Stanka Fitneva, associate professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Canada, who was not involved in the research. And Gary Lupyan, associate professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin, adds, “Only through this type of large-scale analysis can worldwide patterns be discovered.”

Read the entire article here.

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