Global human language? Scientists find links between sound and meaning.

A new linguistic study suggests that biology could play a role in the invention of human languages.

Edmond Terakopian/PA/AP/File
The Rosetta Stone undergoes the last stages of its conservation by Senior Stone Conservator Nic Lee, in the Egyptian Sculpture Gallery at London's British Museum in 2004.

When we’re born, do some words come factory-installed?

A new study, published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, finds that many human languages use similar words to describe the same concepts. These commonalities, which exist between languages that are apparently unrelated and separated by thousands of miles, may challenge existing theories about linguistic evolution.

“These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of language lineage,” Morten Christiansen, co-author and director of Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, said in a statement. “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 most vocalizing animals, there is a close connection between sound and basic meaning. When Lassie growls at your neighbor’s labradoodle, that’s a universal “stay back” message that both dogs understand.

According to most theories, human words are generally more arbitrary. The English “bird” and Catalan “ocell” have little in common phonetically, even though they mean the same thing. When different languages use similar words, it is usually because they share a common ancestral language.

But there are other words which, despite appearing independently across the world, sound remarkably similar. It's not surprising that the Icelandic “nez” corresponds neatly to the English “nose” and the Italian “naso.” But the Zuni people have used “noli” for some 7,000 years, long before the Spanish arrived in the American Southwest.

Dr. Christiansen and colleagues sought to shed light on the relationship between phonetics and the conceptual meaning of words. Taking the big data approach, they compiled a list of about 100 universal concepts, such as “rock” or “eye,” and compared them across nearly 4,000 languages. The team ruled out similarities based on related languages.

In many cases, researchers found there was an apparent connection between the sound of a word and its meaning. Words referring to “nose” usually contain the nasal “n” consonant. Small things were often described using high-pitched vowel sounds – the English “tiny,” the Arabic “sagheer” and the Swedish “liten.”

“It doesn’t mean all words have these sounds, but the relationship is much stronger than we’d expect by chance,” Christiansen said.

The findings seem to suggest that sound symbolism may be embedded somewhere in our biology. But Christiansen and colleagues are only proposing a pattern, not a cause.

“Perhaps these signals help to nudge kids into acquiring language,” Christiansen said. “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. That’s a key question for future research.”

If future studies do support this connection, they could challenge existing theories of language evolution. Shared characteristics between “sister languages,” in that case, may not have derived from a common ancestral tongue. Rather, they may have appeared independently, simply because humans naturally link certain ideas to specific phonetic sounds.

“The more we look into languages, the more we learn that they are extremely complex, and that we have to take them seriously,” lead author Damian Blasi, a language data scientist at the University of Zurich, told the LA Times.

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