Why we could all be speaking the same language

Papua New Guinea is the most language-diverse nation on Earth. Scientists have discovered the words of common objects ...
ALAMY

Papua New Guinea is the most language-diverse nation on Earth. Scientists have discovered the words of common objects and ideas are strikingly similar across most languages.

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

The discovery challenges one of the fundamental principles of linguistics, that the relationship between a sound of a word and its meaning is arbitrary.

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," US psychology professor Dr Morten Christiansen said.

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"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."

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 tso 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.

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"It doesn't mean all words have these sounds, but the relationship is much stronger than we'd expect by chance," said 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, such as "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 physicists, linguists and computer scientists from the US, Argentina, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland, analysed 40-100 basic vocabulary words in about 3700 languages - approximately 62 per cent of the world's current languages.

Christiansen said the concepts were important in all languages, and children were likely to learn these words early in life.

"Perhaps these signals help nudge kids into acquiring language," he said.

Recent studies have suggested some words share common sounds.

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 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 by babies became mama and daddy.

However, 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," she said.

"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.

 - The Telegraph, London

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