Sound-meaning similarities found across thousands of languages

“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 Morten H. Christiansen, professor of psychology and director of Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab. “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.”

For example, in most languages, the word for “nose” is likely to include the sounds “neh” or the “oo” sound, as in “ooze.” The word for “tongue” is likely to have “l” (as in “langue” in French). “Leaf” is likely to include the sounds “b,” “p” or “l.” “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,” Christiansen said.

The associations were particularly strong for words that described body parts. “We didn’t quite expect that,” he said.