News: World Languages Use Similar Sounds for Common Words

October 12, 2016 Natalie Williams

A new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that humans tend to use the same sounds when pronouncing the words for common objects and ideas, regardless of the language they speak.

A team of physicists, linguists and computer scientists from Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland analyzed common words from 62% of the world's over 6,000 languages. The words included pronouns, verbs that describe motion and nouns that describe natural phenomena.

The study challenges the idea that the relationship between the sound of a word and the associated meaning is arbitrary. The findings show humans tend to use similar sounds for similar-meaning words.

The research, led by psychology professor and director of Cornell's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab, Morten Christiansen, looked at words such as sand, leaf, red, round, nose and tongue.

Christiansen explained some of the findings in a release on Cornell.Edu:

  • The word for "nose" is likely to include the sounds "neh" or the "oo" sound.

  • 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 commonly 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," Christiansen explained, "but the relationship is much stronger than we'd expect by chance."

Researchers believe the results will have important implications for language sciences as non-arbitrary associations can play an important role in the acquisition of language and the evolution of our species' unique communication system.

To read more, please see the Cornell Chronicle study: A nose by any other name would sound the same, study finds.

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About the Author

Natalie Williams

Natalie was born and raised in Montana where she graduated from The University of Montana with a degree in Business Administration. Her international experience includes two summer programs, one at The European Business School in Germany and the other at The University of Brescia in Italy. She studied a variety of global business subjects including international business, trade, culture and language. Key projects for her undergrad studies included meeting with executives from large corporations such as Lufthansa, Opel and The European Central Bank as well as working with the design team on the marketing plan for the 2015 World Fair in Milan, Italy. She has a range of global event management experience including organization of the Annual Mansfield Conference on the Middle East and the China Town Hall meeting series. Her hobbies include beading, yoga, cooking, reading, being outdoors and traveling.

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