Synesthesia and the origins of language

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Do sounds have meaning?

Obviously, words do. But that's not what I'm talking about. Instead, think about the sounds that make up words. When the word was coined, were the sounds chosen because those sounds already made people think of the concept being described?

That's a difficult theory to prove, but there's been some research that supports it. New Scientist has a really fascinating article up about the studies that suggest the sounds in our words aren't totally random. Instead, we all might associate sounds with other senses to some degree. If that sounds a lot like synesthesia ... well, that's the point. The idea behind this theory is that, as with many neurological phenomena, synesthesia exists on a continuum. A true synesthete might hear the word "table" and think of it as a color, or associate it with a smell. But most of us, if given the choice between two unfamiliar words, can tell which one means pointy at rate better than chance.

Suspecting that sound symbolism might also help adults to understand a foreign tongue, Lynne Nygaard at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, recently presented English speakers with pairs of antonyms (such as fast/slow) recorded in 10 different languages - including Albanian, Dutch, Gujarati, Mandarin and Yoruba. When given the corresponding pair of English words, and asked to match the foreign words to them, subjects performed better than they would by chance - suggesting the words' sounds must give clues to their meaning.

What could these clues be? A subsequent analysis hinted at some answers. Words that indicate general movement tend to have more vowels, for instance, and they are more likely to have glottal consonants (the "h" in "behind", for example). Sounds might also reflect the speed of movement: slow movement tends to be represented by sonorant sounds such as "l" or "w", whereas explosive obstruents produced from a blocked airway, such as "ch" or "f", are suggestive of more rapid speeds. Nygaard presented her work at the Atlanta workshop.

Bringing all the evidence together, there seems to be a strong case for saying that sound symbolism does occur in human language. However, some big questions remain. How common are words that elicit cross-sensory connections in modern languages? "Maybe they represent just small pockets of vocabulary," says Morten Christiansen at Cornell University, in Ithaca, New York.

Finally, is sound symbolism universal, perhaps even innate? Tests showing that the patterns are recognised by young children, and by people across cultures, suggest that is a possibility, but more work needs to be done before it can be taken for granted.

Via Stan Carey

Image: Pointy Iron Things, a Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivative-Works (2.0) image from 22280677@N07's photostream