Language sounds may not be arbitrary

28 Dec

When I teach about language development, I have always told my students that the sounds of language are arbitrary. The fact that the same animal can be “dog” in English and “inu” in Japanese, shows that the sound systems of different languages are just historic accidents.

Well, maybe not. A study published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that there may be certain fundamental similarities between certain words across languages:

It is widely assumed that one of the fundamental properties of spoken language is the arbitrary relation between sound and meaning. Some exceptions in the form of nonarbitrary associations have been documented in linguistics, cognitive science, and anthropology, but these studies only involved small subsets of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today. By analyzing word lists covering nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages, we demonstrate that a considerable proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages (linguistic families or isolates). Prominently among these relations, we find property words (“small” and i, “full” and p or b) and body part terms (“tongue” and l, “nose” and n). The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed. Our results therefore have important implications for the language sciences, given that nonarbitrary associations have been proposed to play a critical role in the emergence of cross-modal mappings, the acquisition of language, and the evolution of our species’ unique communication system.

One possible explanation for these similarities is that they are survivals from prot0-world, the hypothetical first human language. But note that the authors argue against this:

The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed

6 Responses to “Language sounds may not be arbitrary”

  1. Enrique Guerra-Pujol January 3, 2017 at 1:26 am #

    I have always been fascinated by the origins of language. How amazing that all peoples have languages without the need for any central “language” czar…

    • jecgenovese January 3, 2017 at 3:02 pm #

      Chomksy would argue that the Czar is the common structure of our brains.

      • Enrique Guerra-Pujol January 3, 2017 at 6:28 pm #

        I still remember learning about Chomsky’s linguistic theories in one of my college literature courses. I was hooked and even took a course in linguistics … Alas, that was almost 30 years ago so I need to brush up on my Chomsky (and the criticisms of his theory as well). Where should I begin?

      • jecgenovese January 4, 2017 at 8:21 am #

        A good starting point might be Steven Pinker’s book The Language Instinct, which is sympathetic to Chomsky’s basic view. However, in the past few years, some of Chomsky’s views on the universal grammar have been challenged, so there is still a lot of debate about these ideas.

      • Enrique Guerra-Pujol January 4, 2017 at 12:03 pm #

        I will add Pinker’s tome to my list.


  1. HISTORY AND USE OF PRAGMATICS | | - January 14, 2017

    […] Language sounds may not be arbitrary ( […]

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