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How Do You Say ‘Tongue’ in Tongan?

New research finds words in different languages that refer to the same thing often use, or avoid using, similar sounds.

By Tom Jacobs


The Conversation, by

Arnold Lakhovsky, circa 1935. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

Language, by common consensus, is unique to humans. But the origins of this enormously useful ability have never been entirely clear, and it has suddenly become a surprisingly hot topic.

In a new book, Tom Wolfe argues that the theory of evolution can’t explain our ability to communicate in such a sophisticated way. And a just-published study argues that a truism most linguists have accepted for the past century — that the sound of words is unrelated to their meaning — may be mistaken.

“A careful statistical examination of words from nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages reveals that unrelated languages very often use — or avoid — the same sounds for specific referents,” writes a research team led by Damian Blasi of the University of Zurich. “For instance, words for ‘tongue’ tend to have (the sounds) l or u, ‘round’ often appears with r, and ‘small’ with i.”

In the Proceedings of the National Association of Sciences, Blasi and his colleagues argue that these “striking similarities” call into serious question the notion that the sound of words is strictly arbitrary.

Although it has long been out of fashion, sound symbolism — the idea that vocal sounds carry inherent meanings — has been around since the 18th century. Our own language provides some potential evidence in its favor: Note how the gl sound consistently denotes illumination (glisten, glow, glitter), or fl suggests movement (flee, fly, flow).

A truism most linguists have accepted for the past century — that the sound of words is unrelated to their meaning — may be mistaken.

That said, Chinese sounds nothing like Italian. Or does it? In an attempt to find if common sounds denote the same things, the researchers focused on a set of terms they refer to as “basic vocabulary,” including “pronouns, body-part terms, property words, motion verbs, and nouns describing natural phenomena.”

They determined the words for these things or concepts in 62 percent of the world’s languages, representing 85 percent of its lineages (that is, sets of languages that can be traced to a common ancestor). The words were “transcribed into a phonologically simplified system consisting of 34 consonants and seven vowels,” and then compared.

The researchers found 74 “sound-meaning associations.” Confirming previous research, “the concept ‘small’ was found to be associated with the high front vowel i,” they write. “We also observed a strong association between ‘round’ and r sounds.”

“Some of the strongest signals found correspond to body parts,” they write. “‘Tongue’ was very strongly associated with the lateral l,” while “nose” was associated with the nasal n and “the high back vowel u.

They also found a number of negative associations — sounds that few if any languages associate with certain meanings. For instance, the u and k sounds are generally not found in words that refer to a tongue.

While the researchers don’t have a definitive explanation for their findings, they argue that these associations “are due to factors common to our species.” Perhaps, they argue, they demonstrate “the constraints that affect how we communicate.”

“Despite the immense flexibility of the world’s languages,” they conclude, “some sound-meaning associations are preferred by culturally, historically, and geographically diverse human groups.”

By the way, according to an online translator, ‘tongue’ in Tongan is “’elelo.” There’s that “l” sound!