The world is full of languages and dialects—more than 7,000. Across these languages, many possible sounds can be combined into words. While there may be similarities in words between closely related languages, for years linguists have believed that the relationship between the sound of a word and its meaning is completely arbitrary. Recently Morten H. Christiansen, Psychology, collaborated with fellow researchers to investigate whether that belief might need to be reappraised.
“We looked at nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages from across every continent,” Christiansen says. “And we compared from 40 to 100 different words for concepts or things—like body parts, kinship terms, celestial bodies, and pronouns such as I and you. These are all words that anthropologists have identified as especially important in all languages. Contrary to what people thought, we found that there are reliable sound-meaning patterns across the languages of the world. People will tend to use the same sounds when they come up with a word for a particular concept.”
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