We've known about this for some time, but the idea hasn't gotten through. Will it do so this time?
A careful statistical examination of words from 6,000+ languages shows that humans tend to use the same sounds for common objects and ideas, no matter what language they’re speaking.
The new research, led by Prof. Morten Christiansen of Cornell University, demonstrates a robust statistical relationship between certain basic concepts – from body parts to familial relationships and aspects of the natural world – and the sounds humans around the world use to describe them.
“These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of language lineage,” Prof. Christiansen said.
“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.”
There's now an article in Scientific American.Damián E. Blasia, Søren Wichmann, Harald Hammarström, Peter F. Stadler, and Morten H. Christiansen,Sound–meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages, September 12, 2016, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1605782113: PNAS September 12, 2016
The independence between sound and meaning is believed to be a crucial property of language: across languages, sequences of different sounds are used to express similar concepts (e.g., Russian “ptitsa,” Swahili “ndege,” and Japanese “tori” all mean “bird”). However, 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. For instance, words for tongue tend to have l or u, “round” often appears with r, and “small” with i. These striking similarities call for a reexamination of the fundamental assumption of the arbitrariness of the sign.
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.