Why a nose is a nose

In most of the world’s languages, a number of basic words have similar sound structure. A word for ‘nose’ typically has a nasal sound, an /n/ or /m/, words for ‘mother’ an /m/ or /n/, and various bone words, such as ‘knee’ a /k/. It is a mystery how these connections emerge and why they are maintained as languages evovolve over generations of speakers. Are we born to pronounce words in a specific way? Or does every new generation of speakers reinvent similar-sounding words for ‘mother’,  ‘father’, ‘knee’, ‘blow’, and so forth? A new study form in Lund (in collaboration with Tübingen) finds that these sound-meaning mappings are more stable than average as words evolve over time. This tendency is strongest for those sounds which are acquired earlier when a child learns a language. Our results indicate that across languages, new generations uphold these sound-symbolic associations and therefore keep pronouncing basic concepts similarly.

The study is published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B and can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2020.0190.

A previous study by the Lund group, identifying basic concepts that have similar sound structure in all of the world's languages was published by Linguistic Typology 2020 and can be accessed at https://doi.org/10.1515/lingty-2020-2034.

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