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      Sound–meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages


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          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.

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          Most cited references25

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          A note on the calculation of empirical P values from Monte Carlo procedures.

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            The shape of boubas: sound-shape correspondences in toddlers and adults.

            A striking demonstration that sound-object correspondences are not completely arbitrary is that adults map nonsense words with rounded vowels (e.g. bouba) to rounded shapes and nonsense words with unrounded vowels (e.g. kiki) to angular shapes (Köhler, 1947; Ramachandran & Hubbard, 2001). Here we tested the bouba/kiki phenomenon in 2.5-year-old children and a control group of adults (n =20 per age), using four pairs of rounded versus pointed shapes and four contrasting pairs of nonsense words differing in vowel sound. Overall, participants at both ages matched words with rounded vowels to the rounder shapes and words with unrounded vowels to the pointed shapes (both ps .10). Such naturally biased correspondences between sound and shape may influence the development of language.
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              Towards Greater Accuracy in Lexicostatistic Dating


                Author and article information

                Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A
                Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A
                Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America
                National Academy of Sciences
                27 September 2016
                12 September 2016
                : 113
                : 39
                : 10818-10823
                [1] aDepartment of Comparative Linguistics and Psycholinguistics Laboratory, University of Zürich , CH-8006 Zurich, Switzerland;
                [2] bDepartment of Linguistic and Cultural Evolution, Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History , 07745 Jena, Germany;
                [3] cDiscrete Biomathematics Group, Max Planck Institute for Mathematics in the Sciences , 04103 Leipzig, Germany;
                [4] d University of Leiden , 2311 BV Leiden, The Netherlands;
                [5] e Kazan Federal University , Kazan, Russia, 420000;
                [6] fInterdisciplinary Center for Bioinformatics, Department of Computer Science, University of Leipzig , 04107 Leipzig, Germany;
                [7] g Santa Fe Institute , Santa Fe, NM 87501;
                [8] hDepartment of Psychology, Cornell University , Ithaca, NY 14853;
                [9] iInteracting Minds Centre, Aarhus University , 8000 Aarhus C, Denmark
                Author notes
                1To whom correspondence should be addressed. Email: damianblasi@ 123456gmail.com .

                Edited by Anne Cutler, University of Western Sydney, Penrith South, NSW, Australia, and approved July 25, 2016 (received for review April 13, 2016)

                Author contributions: D.E.B., S.W., H.H., and M.H.C. designed research; D.E.B. performed research; D.E.B. analyzed data; and D.E.B., S.W., H.H., P.F.S., and M.H.C. wrote the paper.

                Author information
                PMC5047153 PMC5047153 5047153 201605782
                Page count
                Pages: 6
                Funded by: EC | European Research Council (ERC) 501100000781
                Award ID: 269484
                Funded by: EC | European Research Council (ERC) 501100000781
                Award ID: 295918
                Social Sciences
                Biological Sciences
                Psychological and Cognitive Sciences

                linguistics,sound symbolism,iconicity,language evolution,cognitive sciences


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