A nose by any other name: Biology may affect the way we invent words

If you visited Iceland and asked someone what they called the smelling organ in the middle of their face, they’d tell you, nev. In Japan, it’s hana. To Sar speakers in southern Chad it’s kon, and among the Zuni tribe of the southwestern United States. it’s noli. In fact, you could go to more than 1,400 places around the world, question speakers of more than 1,400 different languages, and hear 1,400 words that contain the sound “n.” But all of them mean the same thing: nose.

That’s one of the findings of a sweeping study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Monday, which found evidence of strong associations between the sounds in words and the ideas they represent in completely unrelated languages from all corners of the world. Despite a long-standing assumption in linguistics that the sounds we pick to signify certain concepts are arbitrary, the researchers argue that at least some associations are more universal than you’d think.

“Most models for how words come into our lexicon are predicated on this assumption that the sound doesn’t tell you anything about what it represents,” said Jaime Reilly, a cognitive psychologist and speech pathologist at Temple University who was not involved in the study. “So the really neat thing about this paper is it sort of questions whether that arbitrariness assumption actually holds across all words.”

“It’s going to end up being a very important study,” he said.

Read more: The Washington Post

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