Humans may speak a universal language, say scientists

Humans may speak a universal language, say scientists
By Sarah Knapton, science editor 12 SEPTEMBER 2016 • 8:00PM

Humans across the globe may be actually speaking the same language after scientists found that the sounds used to make the words of common objects and ideas are strikingly similar.

The discovery challenges the fundamental principles of linguistics, which state that languages grow up independently of each other, with no intrinsic meaning in the noises which form words.

But research which looked into several thousand languages showed that for basic concepts, such as body parts, family relationships or aspects of the natural world, there are common sounds - as if concepts that are important to the human experience somehow trigger universal verbalisations.

"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 Dr Morten Christiansen, professor of psychology and director of Cornell's Cognitive Neuroscience Lab in the US where the study was carried out. 

"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."

The study found, that in most languages, the word for ‘nose’ is likely to include the sounds ‘neh’ or the ‘oo’ sound, as in ‘ooze.’

Similarly, the word for ‘leaf’ is likely to include the sounds ‘l,’ ‘p’ or ‘b’ while ‘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," added Dr Christiansen.

Other words found to contain similar sounds across thousands of languages include ‘bite’, ‘dog’, ‘fish’, ‘skin’, ‘star’ and ‘water’ The associations were particularly strong for words that described body parts, like ‘knee’, ‘bone’ and ‘breasts.’

The team also found certain words are likely to avoid certain sounds. This was especially true for pronouns. For example, words for ‘I’ are unlikely to include sounds involving u, p, b, t, s, r and l. ‘You’ is unlikely to include sounds involving u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r and l.

The team, which included of physicists, linguists and computer scientists from the US, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland analysed 40-100 basic vocabulary words in around 3,700 languages – approximately 62 percent of the world's current languages.

The researchers don't know why humans tend to use the same sounds across languages to describe basic objects and ideas.

But Dr Christian said the concepts were important in all languages, and children are likely to learn these words early in life.

"Perhaps these signals help nudge kids into acquiring language," he added: “Maybe 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.”

One of the most basic concepts in linguistics is that the relationship between a sound of a word and its meaning is arbitrary. However recent studies have suggested that some words may share common sounds.

For example researchers have shown that words for small spiky objects in a variety of languages are likely to contain high-pitched sounds, while rounder shapes contain ‘ooo’ sounds, which is known as the ‘bouba/kiki’ effect.

Dr Lynne Cahill, a lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of Sussex said it was possible that some words were similar across languages because they are the first noises children make. So the ‘ma, ma, ma’ and ‘da, da, da’ sounds made be babies became mama and daddy.

But she said it was too early to say there was a universal root for other words.

“You could argue that the words chosen here are very old and therefore most likely to have a common ancestor language in the past, from which they all derived,” she said.

“I think this is an interesting study which has looked at so many languages but I don’t think it quite justifies their claim that it debunks the idea that language is arbitrary and I think they looked at too few words to make any firm conclusions.”

The research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.


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