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October 8, 2015

Mankind's greatest invention is language. Spoken language gives us the ability to exchange ideas with each other, including the important activity of teaching our children, while written language gives us the ability to convert short-term memory to long-term cultural memory. I wrote about some scientific aspects of language in two earlier articles (Proto-Tongues, February 18, 2013, and Conserved Words, September 16, 2013)

Phaistos Disk
Both sides of the Phaistos Disk, a fired clay disk about six inches in diameter that's completely covered on each side with stamped symbols arrayed in a spiralfrom center to edge. The disk is about 3,500 years old, and it was found in the Minoan palace of Phaistos. The language, which has similarities to Linear A and Linear B, is unknown. No other examples of the Phaistos script have been found, and it's unlikely that a translation can be made, since there's no point of reference. (Photo by Maksim, via Wikimedia Commons.)

Since various human cultures developed in relative isolation from each other, it's not surprising that many languages are spoken. There are more than 4,000 major languages in the world today, with an additional two thousand spoken by just a few people. There are only 380 million people who speak English as a first language, but there are half a billion others who speak English as a second language. Those who think that English has a good standing as a "universal language" should consider that nearly a billion people speak Mandarin Chinese as their first language.

At one time, Latin was the established language of science. Isaac Newton wrote his scientific works, such as his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, in Latin, as did Copernicus (De revolutionibus orbium coelestium) and Galileo (Sidereus Nuncius). As I wrote in a previous article (Lingua Franca, November 10, 2014), English is now the preferred language of science, a result of the hegemony of American science after World War II, among other factors.

Aristotle, De Caelo (On the Heavens)The earliest science was written in Greek.

Aristotle's "On the Heavens," portion of the first page of an 1837 edition.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

The Romance Languages serve as an example that there are significant similarities of words between languages. As an example, the following table shows the equivalent word for the English, "cat," in various Romance and non-Romance languages (as verified on Google Translate).


One possible reason for such similarity between languages is the principle that spoken language is limited by the possible sounds produced by the human vocal tract. The word "ma-ma," is easy to produce, so it's no wonder that this is usually the first word spoken by infants.

The more common words within a particular language are quite persistent. the English words, I, we, two and three, have persisted for tens of thousands of years.[1] Less common words are not as permanent. Most words have a 50% chance of being replaced by a completely different word in 2,000-4,000 years,[2] and they're likely to be extinct after 9,000 years.[3] One interesting linguistic fact is that the word, "alcohol," has been essentially unchanged from its Sumerian form of six thousand years ago.[4]

This brings us to the principal mystery of linguistics; namely, why did our ancestors choose to call a cat, "cat," in the prototypal language from which our word derives, and not something else. As Shakespeare wrote in Romeo and Juliet, "a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." Is there something about certain words that predisposes their being named one way, and not another?

Plato considered this question nearly two and a half millennia ago in his dialogue, "Cratylus." It's obvious that onomatopoeic words, such as "buzz" and "zip," are linked to their properties, but what about the others?

Psychologists at the University of Miami (Coral Gables, Florida), and the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Madison, Wisconsin) argue in a recent PLoS ONE paper that assignment of words in not by chance.[5-6] They write that there is considerable evidence that iconicity, the resemblance between form and meaning, is a widespread property of language, and that iconicity is more common than previously believed in Indo-European languages, of which English is a member.[5]

Assorted Linux iconsComputer icons are the type of icon with which most people are familiar.

Assorted Linux icons from the /usr/share/icons directory of my Linux desktop computer.

Left to right by row, search, music, video, trash, text editor, image, dictionary, help, and web browser.

The core of science is experiment, so this research team designed and conducted a series of experiments to test certain hypotheses related to the principle of iconicity. Native speakers of English and Spanish were tested to determine the iconicity of about 600 words from a standard corpus.[5] The experiments provided evidence that iconicity is an important property in both English and Spanish.[5] Adjectives were found to be more iconic than nouns and functional words in both English and Spanish.[6]

Vowel sounds contribute to iconicity; for example, the vowel in the word, "huge," sounds "big," while the vowels in the word, "tiny," sound "small."[6] Says Lynn Perry, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Miami College and co-lead author of the study,
"If you show people a novel pointy object and a novel round object, and ask them which of these is a 'kiki' and which is a 'bouba,' they are more likely to say that a pointy object is called 'kiki' and the round one is called 'bouba,' because they sound more pointy and round, respectively."[6]

Most interestingly, it was found that words learned at an earlier age, the most basic words in any language, tend to be more iconic.[5] Marcus Perlman, co-lead author of the study and a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, makes the following observation:
"Young children face the very considerable challenge of figuring out that all these vocalizations that the people around them are making mean something, and further, that they mean very particular things... When words are iconic, the sound of the word instinctively primes its meaning, and this helps children to understand that the sound is a word with a particular meaning, and that words in general have meanings."[6]

Braille code for the letter 'L'Another example of iconicity in a language.

English Braille code for the letter, "l."

(Image created with Inkscape.)


  1. 'Oldest English words' identified, BBC News, February 26, 2009.
  2. David Brown, "Linguists identify words that have changed little in 15,000 years," The Age, May 7, 2013.
  3. Mark Pagel, Quentin D. Atkinson, Andreea S. Calude and Andrew Meade, "Ultraconserved words point to deep language ancestry across Eurasia," Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci., vol. 110, no. 21 (May 21, 2013), pp. 8471-8476. A copy of the open access PDF file is available, here.
  4. Matt Peckham, "Move Over, BabelFish: Computer Program Reconstructs Lost Tongues," Techland, Time Magazine, February 12, 2013.
  5. Lynn K. Perry, Marcus Perlman, and Gary Lupyan, "Iconicity in English and Spanish and Its Relation to Lexical Category and Age of Acquisition," PLoS ONE, vol. 10, no. 9 (September 4, 2015), Document no. e0137147, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0137147. This is an open access article with a PDF file available here.
  6. Finding Iconicity in Spoken Languages, University of Miami Press Release, September 8, 2015.

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