Even though you’re not fluent in different languages, you may be able to recognise words in others. In German for water is ‘wasser’, in Dutch it’s ‘water’ and in Serbian ‘voda’. Similar sounds and letters are used to form the word across languages.
Looking at this phenomenon, researchers at Cornell’s Cognitive Neuroscience Lab in the US have found we use similar sounds for the words of common objects and ideas, suggesting that humans may speak the same language.
By analysing around 40-100 basic vocabulary words in around 3,700 languages, approximately 62 per cent of the world’s current languages, the researchers came to the conclusion that for basic concepts such as body parts or aspects of the natural natural world, there are common sounds. The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Body parts in particular stood out. The word ‘nose’ was likely to include the sounds ‘neh’ or the ‘oo’ sound, as in ‘ooze’. The words ‘knee’ ‘bone’ and ‘breasts’ were also similar across the language spectrum. The word for tongue is likely to have an ‘l’, as in ‘langue’ in French.
The words ‘red’ and ’round’ were more likely to include the ‘r’ sound. ‘Leaf’ was found to include the sounds ‘l’, ‘b’ or ‘p’. The words ‘bite’, ‘dog’, ‘star’ and ‘water’ also stood out as words with strong similar sounds.
Certain words were also found to avoid specific sounds. Words for ‘I’ were found to be unlikely to include sounds involving ‘b’, ‘l’, ‘p’, ‘r’, ‘s’, ‘t’ or ‘u’.
“These sound symbolic patterns show up again and again across the world, independent of the geographical dispersal of humans and independent of language lineage,” said Dr Morten Christiansen, professor of psychology and director of the Neuroscience lab where the study was carried out.
“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,” said Christiansen. “It doesn’t mean all words have these sounds, but the relationship is much stronger than we’d expect by chance.”
The team aren’t sure why humans tend to use the same sounds across languages to describe these basic objects and ideas, however their research could be used in future studies to understand the ways our brains learn and process words and language.
“Maybe it has something to do with the human mind or brain, our ways of interacting, or signals we used when we learn or process language. That’s a key question for future research,” said Christiansen.
Understanding and processing language is not a uniquely human characteristic. A recent study demonstrated that dogs and humans process language in similar ways, which allows the canines to understand the difference between when they’re being praised and when they’re being told off.