people sitting and talking
September 14, 2016

Scientists discover a ‘universal human language’

Many of the world's 6,000-plus languages use similar sounds for similar concepts, groundbreaking research has found. Most notably, this still applies to unrelated languages.

While similarities would be expected for languages from the same family, the same part of the world and/or the same original language (e.g. Latin), it is surprising to learn that languages with completely separate identities also have plenty of shared sound-meaning pairs.

The findings, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, run counter to long-standing ideas in linguistics. In fact, the study has thrown a spanner in the works of research into the history of the global languages.

“The more we look into languages, the more we learn that they are extremely complex...” said author Damian Blasi, a language data scientist at the University of Zurich in Switzerland, and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Germany.

Typically, basic words across unrelated languages sound nothing alike. “Ptitsa,” “ndege” and “tori” all mean “bird” in Russian, Swahili and Japanese, respectively, for example.

But the long-held idea that there is no significant crossover has never been comprehensively tested. Now, advancements in technology and modern statistical methods have allowed experts to analyze thousands of language data sets at once.

Noses and tongues

Blasi and his team team studied around 70 percent of the world's languages using word lists covering 100 basic and universal concepts, to see if similar sounds emerged. (Rocks, for example, are a basic concept as they are common to all parts of the world, whereas snow is not).

They were able to exclude sound patterns that existed only because two languages were related. Even after that, a surprising number of connections were found.

Among the examples: words for “tongue” often tend to have an “l” or a “u” (such as the Spanish “lengua”), while words for “nose” often have an “n” sound. Words for “round” often have an “r,” and “small” is associated with “ee” sounds.

The research may even mean that similarities in related languages are due in some cases to human instinct to link certain sounds with certain meanings, rather than to the shared heritage of the languages.

Researchers have already proposed potential reasons why these patterns crop up:

“Perhaps “l” is associated with tongues and “n” is associated with noses because those body parts play a role in making those sounds,” Blasi said, adding, “That…calls into question some of the attempts that people have put forward in order to determine the prehistory of many linguistic families."

For now, though, Blasi and his team are not trying too hard to pinpoint why these shared patterns exist, but simply that they do.


Image credit: Thinkstock