Nose, Nase, Nez: Shared Sounds and Meaning Link World Languages

By Nathaniel Scharping | September 13, 2016 4:59 pm
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(Credit: Petr Vaclavek/Shutterstock)

In English we say “nose”, the French say “nez” and Germans pronounce it “nase.” The words that different cultures use to describe the same objects or concepts might be more similar than we realize.

That’s the conclusion of a statistical analysis of thousands of languages, which concluded that some of the most basic words in our vocabularies share important characteristics, no matter the language being spoken.

The findings contradict a basic assumption in linguistics: that the origin of our words is largely arbitrary. There are exceptions to this rule of course, but by and large, it is commonly held that the meaning of a word has no bearing on the sounds which form it.

By proving otherwise, the researchers raise intriguing questions about the ontological roots of language, and suggest that some shared features of our brains had a hand in shaping the development of language.

Words Upon Words

In their paper, published Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers from Germany and Switzerland examined two-thirds of the more than 6,000 languages we know about today. They compiled 6,452 lists of the most basic words that languages share, words like pronouns, motion verbs, and nouns for natural phenomena and body parts. They then broke the words down into symbols representing specific sounds, which they were able to feed into an algorithm to tease out the commonalities between them.

The researchers were looking for sounds that showed up in words describing the same things. If there were truly no connection between vocalizations and meaning, the sounds should be evenly distributed. That wasn’t the case though — they found 74 words that showed a correlation between the sounds they used and what they meant. This held even if the languages came from completely different lineages, meaning that they never borrowed from each other.

These correlations were both positive and negative, meaning that some words shared sounds, while others all seemed to shy away from certain sounds. Some words turned out to have both. Take “tongue” for example: Across all the languages, the sounds for “e” and “l” show up more often, while “u” and “k” appear less frequently than would be expected.

Both “red” and “round” show an affinity for “r”, while “name” rarely possesses “o” and “p”.

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-4-53-09-pm

An image from the study showing words that have either positive or negative associations with specific sounds. (Credit: Damián E. Blasi et. al)

Does It Make Sense?

On the surface, it makes sense that some of our words sound the same. After all, we’re all human, and wherever our languages came from, they spring from brains that work largely alike.

On the other hand, these findings may seem to be partly counterintuitive — after all, there are plenty of words that sound the same but mean very different things across languages. In addition, some of the researchers conclusions don’t seem to jive with our own language — take for example, their finding that the word for “you” doesn’t often possess “o” or “u” sounds.

It’s important to remember, however, that the researchers found correlations on a very broad scale. On the scale of thousands of languages, English is just a drop in the bucket. The researchers don’t lay out hard and fast rules for languages — instead, they find that a good number of sounds show up in a way that shouldn’t happen randomly.

But Why?

They don’t know exactly why this happens. The roots of language far exceed any written documents, and archaeological finds don’t often provide good insights into speech patterns. One theory is that all of our languages today come from ancient proto-languages — after all, most languages should share an etymological root if you go back far enough. Like the broad similarities between species that diverged millions of years ago, this could explain some of the parallels.

Another theory is that we formed words based on similarities between how they sound and the action or thing they describe. Previous studies have found that high-pitched sounds are often used to describe small things and low-pitched sounds describe large objects. It is also thought that sounds with particular “shapes” describe some objects better. Smoothly rolling “r” sounds might show up often in words for “round,” because the sounds mimics the shape.

The researchers say that this is the first time anyone has taken a big data approach to the issue by compiling information on a wide number of languages. They hope that future work will be move beyond establishing a correlation, and actually shed light on why we might prefer certain sounds for particular words.

The answer will likely involve much more than linguistics — this is a question that relies on the fundamentals of how our brains process information about the world.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, top posts
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  • Glenna

    The idea that any human language can be thought of as being completely different from another seems sort of like saying that the DNA that makes a crow’s foot is completely different from the DNA that makes a sparrow’s foot. Maybe our brains are processing information in a fundamental way or maybe some words are more resistant to change over time than others.

    • OWilson

      If these statistical analysts had consulted a actual linguist she would have disabused them from the “basic assumption in linguistics: that the origin of our words is largely arbitrary”

      In fact many similar words in different languages come from the same single root; amor, arnour, amore there are too many examples. Indo European, Latin, Greek.

      Also words that “sound like” the action they describe, are also common in primitive language, animals, and baby talk.

      The correct word for this well understood property is, “onomatopoeia”, as in cuckoo, boom, whisper.

      .

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      Klingon was purposely constructed to violate the structures of human languages. Esperanto averages European languages. 1) Both are “major” languages (number of speakers), and 2) Esperanto is also awful.

      Clean up English verb conjugations and spelling, add a neuter noun singular. Done.

  • dave_mclau

    I haven’t read the original paper (the site appears to be down), but the example at the start of this article seems particularly badly chosen. English, French and German are all Indo-European languages, and “nose” is such a simple concept that there was almost certainly a word for it before the parent language split into divergent languages. So the similarity between those languages’ words for “nose” is because they are all descended from the same word.

  • Greg Gallacci

    This is interesting, sort of fits something I noticed years ago.
    Many of the upper-case letters in ‘English’ can be mapped to the shape of the mouth while saying the letter.
    B = pursed lips, O = lips in circle, E = mouth open, tongue slightly out, and so on.
    True, this only works for works for Anglo characters, but those were derived from Romans, who got it from who?

    • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

      ” works for Anglo characters” Hangul is a wholly synthetic written language. Its letters tell you how to configure anatomy to generate the sounds. King Sejong the Great commissioned scholars to replace Chinese characters, completed by by 1443 AD.

      Official Truth tells us that warm, humid climates are heavy on vowels to carry the sound, Hawai’ian. Cold dry climates in turn are heavy on consonants. Korean makes a mockery of that, 19 consonant and 21 vowel letters, so it doesn’t count.

  • http://www.mazepath.com/uncleal/qz4.htm Uncle Al

    the most basic words in our vocabularies share important characteristics” except when they don’t.

    nose ⇋ hundë Albanian
    nose ⇋ քիթ Armenian
    nose ⇋ 鼻子 Chinese
    nose ⇋ sudurra Basque
    nose ⇋ ihu Hawai’ian
    nose ⇋ lub qhov ntswg Hmong
    nose ⇋ orr Hungarian
    nose ⇋ imi Igbo
    nose ⇋ srón Irish
    nose ⇋ 코 Korean
    nose ⇋ хамар Marathi
    nose ⇋ จมูก Persian
    nose ⇋ மூக்கு Tamil
    nose ⇋ mũi Vietnamese

    A Mouthful of Air (1992), Anthony Burgess. “from Shakespeare’s pronunciation, to the politics of speech, to the place of English in the world” Burn it for contradicting Social Justice. Asimov’s Guide to Shakespeare (1979), Isaac Asimov. Burn it for bursting with social aggressions. The Elements of Style (2005), Strunk and White. Burn it for being patriarchal oppression of Peoples of Colour. Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Burn it! BURN IT! BURN IT!!!

  • Simon Whyatt

    So you look for similarities between 6000 languages, and find 74 words with vague similarities.

    I think if you look hard enough at a data set that large, you’ll find anything you want.

    As has been pointed out elsewhere in the comments, of course we already know that some words are onomatopoeic. Quite possibly nose is one of them, having a nasal sound (also onomatopeic from same root?).

    Again, as also pointed out, the 3 examples at the start, plus pretty much every word for nose in Western Europe, all evolved from the same root. We also have nas, nariz, Neus, naso, naese, etc.

    While the researchers claim that these patterns also show up across languages with no shared roots, I’m not convinced this is anything more than random chance.

  • Vijay

    may be.. words from languages having the same root or mother language have the similar sounds for words.

    • marc

      Like “language” and “mother” !In French “language” and “mère” ,a in Latin “lingua” ,”mater “. in German “mutter”,in Indo-European “matar”,Italian “madre” etc………. For myself it’s usefull and funny to understand English,Italian,French and most of Spanish words ,a pleasure,a real pleasure . For most of us ,the real problem is a musical one : how to pronunce and how to listen to other languages ,and above all ,others minds and cultures !

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