The roots of language

“Language is a form of organized stutter.” -Marshall McLuhan

Every normal child can learn any language to which she is habitually exposed. The languages differ, but not the ability. This is one of those intriguing places where culture and cognitive mechanisms obviously blend, and blend very successfully.

But how did we start to speak in the first place? And why do we make the specific word sounds that we do? The origin of human language is a complex and contentious subject, with not as many people lately being as sure as Sassure that the specific words of language are just arbitrary sounds.

In “Kiki or bouba? In search of language’s missing link,” the cover story of the July 16th issue of New Scientist, David Robson reviews some of the most recent research that suggests that at least some of the basis for the sounds we make when we make language comes from other senses than sound.

At issue here is not the familiar poetic device of onomatopoeia. The strong link between onomatopoeic words and the sounds they represent is present not just in traditional poetry but also in the sound play of children. Listen to a child playing with a toy, and you’re likely to hear a variety of non-word sounds whose function is to “illustrate” the child’s actions. When the toy is crashed into the floor, the child will make a smashing or breaking sound. When the toy is carried high above the running child’s head, he will make sounds that imitate the wind or a jet engine. Associating certain sounds with actions, especially movements, is a universal feature of children’s play.

There are poetic analogues to this sort of thing, and Shakespeare’s The Tempest  offers a good example. When Caliban speaks, in Act III, of breaking free of Prospero, his speech is full of harsh sounds, particularly explosive consonants:

Batter his skull, or paunch him with a stake, 
Or cut his wezand with thy knife …

Later, when Caliban describes the vision of spiritual wealth he has seen in a dream, his speech alters, and the half-monster speaks some of the play’s most poetic lines:

Be not afeard. The isle is full of noises, 
Sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not. 
Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments 
Will hum about mine ears …

But what’s of direct interest in the new research is how words which are not strongly onomatopoeic seem to be associated with other, non-sound qualities, like shape and taste. Why, if words are derived from purely arbitrary sounds, should speakers of all languages tend to associate certain words, whose meanings they do not know, with round, or sour, or moving swiftly?

As Robson notes, research into synesthesia led V. S. Ramachandran to speculate that “cross-sensory connections are in fact a feature of the human brain, so that in practice we all experience synaesthesia at least to a limited extent.” In his experiments, Ramachandran modified the classic  “takeke/baluba” test and found that 95% of his subjects selected “tiki” over “bouba” as the word that better fits a picture of a spiky object.

Some critics were quick to object that this preference was not a real synesthesia, but Ramachandran’s test is not the only evidence.

Chris Westbury of the University of Alberta found that consonants have similar, specific associations. “Continuants,” like a drawn-out “m,” are linked to curvy shapes, while Caliban’s explosives, like a sharp “k,” are linked to spiky shapes.

This association of certain sounds with spiky and curvy shapes is not the only kind of connection found. A team in Edinburgh tested the link between certain sounds and different tastes. Subjects had drops of sweet, sour, salty, or bitter liquids placed on their tongues, after which they used a computer synthesizer to produce sounds associated with the tastes they had experienced. The study found that sweet tastes were most often associated with high vowels, while sour tastes were associated with low vowels.

Direct studies of neural activity support the idea that such connections are neither random nor cultural associations. Benjamin Bergen of UCSD found that “the brain processes meanings of pairs of phonaesthemes such as ‘snore’ and ‘sniff’ more quickly than other pairs related simply by their meaning (such as ‘cord’ and ‘rope’) or their sounds (such as ‘druid’ and ‘drip’).” Says Bergen, “That is exactly what you would expect if olfaction and the ‘sn’ sound are somehow linked in the brain.”

In another study, Lynne Nygaard at Emory University presented English speakers with pairs of antonyms (such as fast/slow) recorded in 10 different languages. Subjects given the corresponding pair of English words, and asked to match the foreign words to them, “performed better than they would by chance — suggesting the words’ sounds must give clues to their meaning.”

Robson asks the crucial question: “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.”

Spend some time listening to how people talk. How often does the sound of a word reinforce the word’s meaning? We describe small things in high-pitched voices, and speak of large things in low voices. Swiftly-moving objects are described with different sounds than we use to describe slow things. Try it, and you’ll see how prevalent it is.

One interesting conjecture drawn from the present research is that gesture theories of the origin of language, which suggest that our spoken language is a secondary offshoot of a basic sign language, may be somewhat off the mark. It’s not hard to imagine a primitive human describing a hawk by a making a slicing motion in the air while vocalizing something like “swoosh!”

One can almost imagine a veldt hunter-gatherer racing along the grasslands after a soaring raptor, his feet encased in the latest Nike runners.

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2 thoughts on “The roots of language

  1. And we speak to children and animals in ways that strengthen these qualities.Would it be true that the better the synaesthesia effect the better the communication? A short, sharp “stop” works better with the dog than “there’s a car coming”.The best tribal story teller is the one who includes detail descriptions in language that stimulates images most directly. The political speeches that move us are the ones that stimulate our senses. Sound bites work.

  2. Work I have done indicates that there is another form of sound symbolism in some languages, including English, that has not been identified before. It is a form of iconicity that involves the articulation of word sounds, particularly the first in a word, and facets of word meaning. It is not difficult identify this iconicity in most sections of the English dictionary but it is much easier in some than in others. The best place to start is one out of the l, n, o, p or y sections. First select a few, say up to 20, of the most frequently used words in the section. Then examine these words to identify a semantic feature or facet of word meaning that is common to most of these words. The features that present themselves are: l – display, manifestness, conspicuous visibility; n – compression, contraction, negation; o – openness; p – particularity, specificity; y – extension, stretching out. When all the features identified in English are put together it becomes clear that they are a remarkable collection. I have come to the conclusion that they represent universal structural elements of human cognition and word meaning. As such they seem to be fundamental to the whole language enterprise. This finding dovetails with the research reported in David Robson’s article.

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