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Across Human Language, Some Basic Vocabulary Words Sound the Same

A massive analysis of two-thirds of the world’s languages found some words are associated with specific sounds.

Words, man. (Photo: Pixabay/Public domain)

A new study looked at basic vocabulary words from around two-thirds of all the languages in the world and considered, more thoroughly than anyone had before, a basic question about language: Do words that mean the same thing sound the same?

Our instincts say no. Words in two unrelated languages have nothing to do with each other. But this group of researchers, whose specialities span cognitive science, linguistics, mathematics, and computer science, found that many basic words are associated with specific sounds, across human language.

Some examples:

  • Words for “nose” often include n or oo
  • Words for “small: often include i
  • Words for “red” often include r
  • Words for “tongue” often include or u

The group arrived at this conclusion after analyzing word lists of 100 basic vocabulary words, including pronouns, body words, motion words, and words for natural phenomena. Their results are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

As the examples above show, these aren’t hard and fast rules. While some words are associated with specific sounds, those sounds don’t show up in all languages. The group has resisted the temptation to try to explain why some sounds might be associated with certain words; for now, it is astonishing enough for them to say that the relationship between sound and meaning does not look completely random.