In a study that shatters a cornerstone concept in linguistics, an analysis of nearly two-thirds of the world's languages shows that humans tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas, no matter what language they're speaking. Published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the research demonstrates a robust statistical relationship between certain basic concepts -- from body parts to familial relationships and aspects of the natural world -- and the sounds humans around the world use to describe them.
"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 Morten H. Christiansen, professor of psychology and director of Cornell's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. "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 example, in most languages, the word for "nose" is likely to include the sounds "neh" or the "oo" sound, as in "ooze." The word for "tongue" is likely to have "l" (as in "langue" in French). "Leaf" is likely to include the sounds "b," "p" or "l." "Sand" will probably use the sound "s." The words for "red" and "round" are likely to include the "r" sound. "It doesn't mean all words have these sounds, but the relationship is much stronger than we'd expect by chance," Christiansen said.