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Wichmann lecturing at Nankai University, Tianjin, China

Evidence for Pervasive Sound Symbolism Across Thousands of Languages

A century ago, the French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure proposed that the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning is fundamentally arbitrary. In a new study, a team of researchers from European and American research institutions, including Søren Wichmann from Leiden University Centre of Linguistics, test this proposed hallmark of human language by analyzing nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages.

Their results demonstrate that there are statistically robust associations between speech sounds and meanings, calling for a reappraisal of the role of arbitrariness in language.

The arbitrary sign

The idea of the arbitrariness of the sign has long been a cornerstone of the language sciences, explaining why it is that different languages often use very different sound patterns to express the same meaning. For example, the perennial woody plant that we refer to in English as tree is called Baum in German, arbre in French, and shù (樹) in Mandarin Chinese.

Sound symbolism surprises

“It is known that some non-arbitrariness—or sound symbolism—does exist in language. However, these exceptions have been demonstrated only on a small scale, across a limited set of languages, and focusing on a few selected cases, such as the possible association between the concept small and high front vowels such as i”, Søren Wichmann says. “Some of the associations found in the new study did not surprise me, like the link between n and the concept nose, i and the concept small, and m and the concept breast. But I was surprised to find, for instance, that the concepts bone, knee, and horn all tend to have k-sounds in them or that full often has b or p.”

Data from 6000+ languages

Søren Wichmann explains that the group of researchers made no prior assumptions about specific, possible associations, but simply looked at what the data from more than 6000 languages and dialects could tell them, using the so-called ASJP database. They found associations are across many different language families and geographical areas and used a range of statistical tests to control for possible sources of error.

Widespread sound-meaning associations

The analyses show that a substantial part of the basic vocabulary is biased toward containing or avoiding specific sounds. The wide extent of these sound-meaning associations thus argues for new ways of thinking about the role of arbitrariness in language. More generally, the results provide new insights into the constraints that affect how humans communicate, suggesting that despite the immense flexibility of the world’s languages, some sound-meaning associations are preferred by culturally, historically and geographically diverse human groups.

Sound-Meaning Association Biases Evidenced across Thousands of Languages
D. E. Blasi, S. Wichmann, H. Hammarström, P. F. Stadler & M. H. Christiansen
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in press
Published online September 12, 2016, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605782113

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