The Words We Know by Heart, Part II: Slithy Toves

by Translation Guy on August 24, 2011

Last time we watched CSI Translation Guy, he had made the outrageous claim that Lewis Carroll discovered the origins of the first human tongue in the furrowed brows of readers puzzling over his nonsensical verse. Call it word-feel, a sense of the rightness of a word, or a feel for what that might mean even if you’ve never come across it before. The sounds we use in English and hear in other languages all bear the tell-tale marks of the single language shared by the human soul, the ancient tongue shared so long ago by our most ancient ancestors.

And the scientists are having a field day with “sound symbolism,” as reported by David Robson in New Scientist recently.

“Lynne Nygaard at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, recently presented English speakers with pairs of antonyms (such as fast/slow) recorded in 10 different languages—including Albanian, Dutch, Gujarati, Mandarin and Yoruba. When given the corresponding pair of English words, and asked to match the foreign words to them, subjects performed better than they would by chance—suggesting the words’ sounds must give clues to their meaning.”

Analysis revealed that words with more vowels indicated more movement, and also were more likely to have glottal consonants like the “h” in “behind.” Slower movement tended towards “I” and “w”, whereas more explosive sounds such as “ch” or “f” were suggestive of higher speeds.

Some words and their meanings are certainly shaped by those old feelings about sounds, and may point to the language of our past.

“It appears to revive a popular 18th-century idea called the ‘bow-wow’ theory, which proposes that humankind’s first words were onomatopoeic, mimicking sounds in our ancestors’ environment. The idea seems plausible until you try to explain how humans ever came to describe silent concepts. . . . But later theories fail to explain how an initially dumb primate could have evolved a complex, arbitrary system of communication with no obvious stepping stones in between.”

But UC San Diego researcher Edward Hubbard believes that it was these word sounds that “helped to get the first words off the ground,” as the sounds associated with each word provided a kind of transition between communication by gesture and communication by word.

Interesting to think how those meaningful sounds that underlie our words may be the very ancestors of our language themselves. Perhaps they represent the legacy of the sounds we made before we had syntax. Any language they came up with would have fit like an old shoe worn for millennia around campfires on the veldt. And besides that, we have so many channels we use to communicate—posture, face and eye, words, tears and laughter, fist, caress and tickle—that each must represent some different stage in our ability to touch each other’s hearts from the time we first slithered out of some Cambrian tar pit.

Back in the day, back when a prehensile tail properly groomed still meant something, words were for fops and liars, and a tickle-rub was the only way to network. That and cracking lice. Works for me.


  1. Alex Vick says:

    I am not all that fascinated by these kinds of studies… what interests me is more the cultural and individual impact on language development.

  2. Not surprising to read this since many Asian languages are based on the one sound=one meaning.

    • Ken says:

      They all sound the same to me, Charles

  3. Sweet Potato says:

    perhaps one needs to study some of the countries that still have ancient languages today, like Papua New Guinea…

  4. gnunn says:

    interesting read, and it seems that no matter how much we evolve we retain some of those basic primal ways of understanding one another.

  5. Victoria says:

    What will future civilizations think of our English language, with words like muggle, threequel, gaydar and screenager? (words introduced into the dictionary in 2009)

    • Ken says:

      How many of those words have legs, Victoria? They seem better suite to a press release than something that will enter the daily lexicon, muggles excepted of course.

  6. If certain sounds tend to reveal certain meanings of words, it surely is not the newer words added every year to the english language which seem more and more ridiculous.

  7. Toyboy says:

    In one of your previous posts you talked about language determining personality, and how culture affects our communication. Maybe there are some basic sounds that permeate through these differences.

  8. anglia says:

    I think it is predominantly our body language that communicates, and that infiltrates the words/sounds we produce.

  9. Rick Bosl says:

    To me it is just amazing that all of these different languages that we speak around the world all came from simple, single sounds. Wow we are amazing creatures!

  10. I was curious if you ever considered changing the layout of your site? Its very well written; I love what youve got to say. But maybe you could a little more in the way of content so people could connect with it better. Youve got an awful lot of text for only having 1 or 2 pictures. Maybe you could space it out better?

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