Two-thirds of all languages use similar sounds in common words
A study of more than 6,000 languages from around the world shows a surprising relationship between certain words’ sound and meaning.
Point to a picture of the Earth and say the word 'round.' You might be astonished that people who speak completely different languages would understand your meaning. It turns out that a surprisingly large amount of languages use that particular r-sound as part of this word.
This is one of the conclusions of a new study of more than 6,000 languages from around the world. The study has effectively done away with age-old notions of the relationship between a word’s sound and meaning.
“A fundamental idea in linguistics is that there’s no relationship between sound and meaning. But we conclude that there’s a high correlation between word sound and meaning from countries around the world,” says co-author Morten Christiansen, a professor of child language at Aarhus University, Denmark.
“Nose” and “red” sound similar in many languages
But how can words in such seemingly different languages as Portuguese and Danish have any sort of similarity in sound and meaning?
“In several countries, the word “nose” has a nasal sound, which emphasizes the meaning of the word,” says Christiansen.
And that’s not the only example.
"The word "red" sounds alike in many languages. “Rouge” in French, “rot” in German and “red” in English are just some examples,” he says.
Contesting theories explain similarities
Christiansen is not sure why so many words sound the same in so many languages.
One theory says that globalisation allows words to be transferred from one language into another and blurs the boundaries between them. But Christiansen is not convinced by this explanation.
“We’ve investigated whether words from countries located close to one another have a greater similarity in sound and meaning. But we find that the correlation arises between countries of totally different continents and that it’s not dependant on geographical proximity,” he says.
Words do not just sound similar because they are loaned from or inspired by other languages, he says.
Language may be biological
The relationship may instead depend on our biology, says Christiansen.
“Our hypothesis is that there are similar ‘factors’ all around us. There may be some biological factor in terms of how it seems natural for us to communicate. We know that we have, for example, some limitations in terms of how we perceive words in the brain,” he says.
Co-author Søren Wichmann agrees.
“The words should sound right in relation to the objects that they describe. What sounds right, depends on how we experience the world,” says Wichmann who is a postdoc and linguist at Leiden University in the Netherlands.
Babies mumble the word “breasts”
What makes a word sound right in our brains is still a mystery, says Wichmann.
But, he says, there is often a logical relationship between the word’s sound and meaning.
“Around the world, the word “breast” often contains the sound ‘u’ and ‘m.’ This is probably related to the muttering sounds that a breast-feeding child makes. It sounds a bit like ‘um um,’” says Wichmann.
For example, a commonly used word for breast in East Africa is “mumi.” In Japan, it is called a “mune” and in Pakistan they call it a “mamu”.
Analysis of more than 6,000 languages
Wichmann and Christiansen have analysed two thirds of the world’s languages.
“We analysed more than 6,000 languages and dialects, and we found signals that indicate a relationship between sound and meaning in many words,” says Christiansen.
The researchers found up to 100 such words or concepts.
They determined the similarity between these words using statistical techniques.
“Out of the 100 words that we choose, we found 74 positive signals, or ‘hits.’ This shows that there is a great relationship between these words in different countries,” says Christiansen.
Results challenge old language philosophy
Until now, linguists thought that word sound and meaning were completely unrelated.
“This has been the mainstay of linguistics since 1916, when the famous language theorist Ferdinand de Sassure wrote that a word’s sound and meaning were completely unrelated,” says Christiansen.
The new results directly contradict this.
Read More: Make your baby bilingual
Implications for how children learn
Christiansen says that the new knowledge could help children when they first learn how to speak.
“Children have to figure out what the adults’ sounds mean, and now we know that the meaning is connected to the sound of the word. So when I say ‘dog,’ it’s in reference to the small, cute, furry thing running around,” says Christiansen.
Children may learn languages faster as they become aware of how sounds and meaning are linked, he says.
“It’s an end of an era in language research and now we need to delve into new questions,” says Christiansen.
Translated by: Catherine Jex
- "Sound–meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages", PNAS (2016), doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605782113