Scientists have long assumed that the relationship of words to their meanings is an abstract one. Aside from onomatopoeic words like “crash” and “buzz,” which obviously suggest the sounds of what they describe, the specific sounds in the words we use don’t relate to the things named by those words. As evidence, linguists point to countless cases of words that sound nothing alike but describe the same things in different languages.
But a new study has found there is, in fact, a statistically meaningful correlation between many sounds and meanings across languages. Scientists analyzing words in nearly two-thirds of the world’s 6,000 languages found that “a considerable proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages.”
The Guardian notes some examples. High front vowels are used in many languages in words meaning “small” (the “y” sound in “tiny,” the “ee” sound in “wee”). Words for “round” and “red” often contain “r” sounds. Words meaning “full” often use “p” and “b.” Many words for “nose” use “n.” These and other associations hold across many unrelated languages from around the world.
The study even found negative examples – sounds we strongly avoid using in words with certain meanings, such as words for “tooth” not using “b” and “m.”
It’s not known what accounts for this. But it makes intuitive sense. People who think about words and language all the time – writers, I mean – sometimes intuit something like it. When we search our brains for just the right word to use in a sentence, a poem, or a slogan, sometimes it’s sounds that rush in on us, in the form of words that sound a certain way. The words that come to us this way aren’t always precisely what we were looking for. But they can be the right ones nonetheless, not only serving the purpose but expanding our thinking.
By this reckoning, poetic effects like alliteration and assonance aren’t just language games or meaningless aesthetic effects. They can be carriers of meaning too. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet. But “any other name” just might not do.