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Surprising Science

Researchers Find the Sounds We Build Words From Have Built-In Meanings

A new study finds an innate correlation between words and the sounds they’re built from.
Universal meaning in sound (TRAVIS ISAACS)

It seems like no matter where you are in the world, the first word a baby learns is “mama.” Even in two tongues as different as Chinese and English, it’s the same. Though linguists have long believed there’s no inherent link between word meanings and the sounds they use, a new study encompassing 6,000 languages, “Sound-Meaning Association Biases Evidenced Across Thousands of Languages,” suggests there actually is. It turns out that sounds for common things pop up in words far more often than mere chance would explain. The study was co-authored by professor of psychology Morten H. Christiansen, director of Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience lab, Damian Blasi, University of Zurich; Soeren Wichmann, University of Leiden; Harald Hammarström, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History; and Peter Stadler, University of Leipzig.

The researchers found a strong statistical relationship between certain concepts — like body parts, family members, things in nature — and the sounds in the words that describe them. “There does seem to be something about the human condition that leads to these patterns,” Christiansen told Cornell Chronicle. “We don’t know what it is, but we know it’s there.”

The idea that sounds don’t come with meaning goes back a century to the findings of Swiss researcher Ferdinand de Saussure. There has been evidence to the contrary before, as noted by Madhuvanthi Kannan in Scientific American: “In a famous linguistic test, subjects almost always gravitate to the non-word baluma to describe rounded shapes and takete for more angular objects. If you think about it, there appears to be something inherently rounded about baluma, and sharp and pointed about takete.” One idea, Kannan writes, is that the manner in which we produce sounds can suggest their meaning. “When we say ’grand’ (French, for large), for example, our mouth expands as if to mimic the size of the object we refer to, whereas, when we say ’petit’, the vocal tract constricts, and the word plants an impression of a tiny object.”

Researchers for the new study examined 40-100 basic vocabulary words throughout 62% of currently active languages and in 85% of linguistic traditions.

One of the findings is that words for some universal concepts tend to stay away from 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,” writes the Chronicle’sSusan Kelley. “‘You’ is unlikely to include sounds involving u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r and l.”

We know: “you.” English proved to be a regular outlier, not playing by the rules other languages follow. On the other hand, “red” and “round” do have an r sound, and “sand” does usually have an s, as is typically the case.

A couple of other interesting, if unrelated, findings: Sound associations were particularly strong for body parts, and words for small objects tend to incorporate higher-pitched sounds.

Why this happens remains a mystery for now, though documenting the phenomenon is an important first step. “Likely it has something to do with the human mind or brain, our ways of interacting, or signals we use when we learn or process language,” says Christiansen, adding, “That’s a key question for future research.”


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