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Distant languages have similar sounds for common words | The Economist

September 27, 2016

IN ENGLISH, the object on your face that smells things is called a “nose”, and, if you are generously endowed, you might describe it as “big”. The prevailing belief among linguists had been that the sounds used to form those words were arbitrary. But new work by a team led by Damian Blasi, a language scientist at the University of Zurich, and published inProceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests that may not be true—and that the same sounds may be used in words for the same concepts across many different languages.

Dr Blasi was struck by the fact that, although the idea that sounds were arbitrary was firmly entrenched, there was strikingly little evidence for it. So along with his team, which combined skills in anthropology, linguistics, cognitive science, history and statistics, he decided to examine as many languages as possible to see if it was true. They analysed word lists derived from 4,298 of the world’s 6,000-odd languages, which accounted for about 85% of its historical linguistic diversity.

Dr Blasi knew that some words, such as “language”, “langue” and “lingua”, would be similar because they have a common history. Others, including “sugar”, “tea” and “coffee”, have similar-sounding names in different languages because they are traded goods. The people exchanging them were thus exposed to each other and had strong incentives to make themselves understood. But even when keeping all of that in mind and trying to control for it, the team found a lot more consistency across languages than they had expected.

The words for “nose”, for instance, often involve either an “n” sound or an “oo” sound, no matter the language in question. The concept of “round” was noticeably likely to be conveyed using a word containing the “r” sound. Employing an “s” sound in the word for “sand” is similarly common. In fact, the researchers found that almost a third of their 100 concepts had more similarities in the sounds used by languages to express them than expected. That suggests there must be some deeper reason for the commonalities.

There are several theories. One is that some objects have names whose sounds bring them to mind, a sort of “sound symbolism”. Employing a nasal “n” sound to name a nose would be one example. Another is that sensory associations play a role. Studies have found that people routinely associate darker colours with lower sounds and lighter colours with higher ones, for instance. Such shared synaesthesia might account for some of the similarities. Or the commonalities might be leftovers from some ancient, now-forgotten proto-language.

Dr Blasi and his colleagues are reluctant, at this stage, to endorse one theory over another. But there is a more prosaic possibility—expediency. “Huh” is a word that has been found to be remarkably similar across languages. “It’s cheap, short and understandable,” says Dr Blasi—convenient for something you might say hundreds of times a day. Ditto for a pronoun like “I”. Perhaps parsimony is what ultimately unites the world.

Source: Distant languages have similar sounds for common words | The Economist

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