Our Languages May Have More in Common Than We Thought

New findings challenge long-held theories about languages forming independently
By Elizabeth Armstrong Moore,  Newser Staff
Posted Sep 13, 2016 8:01 PM CDT
Our Languages May Have More in Common Than We Thought
Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Researchers say the words for "sand" tend to contain the sound "s" in many languages.   (Willis Glassgow/AP Images for Visit Myrtle Beach)

About 100 years ago, one of the founders of modern linguistics, Ferdinand de Saussure, wrote that the relationship between the sounds we make and the concepts they signify are arbitrary. Many have long agreed. But now the inherent randomness of human language is being challenged by a large new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which analyzed 100 basic words in 3,700 languages around the world. In short: Certain words tend to contain or omit certain sounds in a significant number of these languages, and the consistency is "stronger than we'd expect by chance." The team of physicists, linguists, and computer scientists from the US, Argentina, and Europe took a "big data approach" to 62% of the world's languages, one of them tells the Washington Post.

Among their many findings is that the word for nose contains the sound "n" in more than 1,400 languages, ranging from "nev" in Icelandic and "hana" in Japanese to "kon" in Sar and "nariz" in Spanish. Ditto the sound "s" in sand. The researchers don't yet know why, though they've ruled out the idea of there being one original language. It's not the first study to suggest a biological basis for the sounds we appoint to objects—something called the "bouba/kiki" effect dates back to 1929, suggesting that most humans think the fake word "bouba" sounds like a rounded shape while the fake word "kiki" sounds spiky. A separate researcher tells the Telegraph that some words may derive from what babies can first say, such as "mama," but says the study "looked at too few words to make any firm conclusions." (Check out what linguists found while studying Disney princesses.)

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