Study: A fascinating aspect of language looks to be biologically hardwired in our brains

Büyük and küçük.
Büyük and küçük.
Image: Flickr/Arria Belli, CC BY-SA 2.0
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Does the Turkish word küçük (pronounced coo-chook) mean ”big” or “small”? If you guessed the latter without knowing the language, you’re right—and there may be a cognitive explanation for your instinct.

In a study published in Cognition earlier this year, researchers tested people’s ability to guess at the meanings of words based on their sounds.

Kaitlyn Bankieris, a cognitive scientist from the University of Rochester, and Julia Simner, a psychologist and leader in the field of synesthesia, showed participants 400 adjectives from 10 languages they didn’t speak: Albanian, Dutch, Gujarati, Indonesian, Korean, Mandarin, Romanian, Tamil, Turkish, and Yoruba. The words were broken up into categories by meaning: big/small, bright/dark, up/down, or loud/quiet. Participants heard the words spoken aloud and guessed their meanings.

The results showed that some of the population may be better at understanding foreign words when they perceive them as sounding like what they mean. People with synesthesia—who experience one sense when another is stimulated (for example, they may perceive the taste of apples when they see the number 5)—were more likely to correctly guess the meanings of so-called “sound symbolic” words.

Both people with and without synesthesia were able to guess a word’s meaning more accurately than by random chance, and synesthetes were significantly better than their counterparts at correctly guessing certain words’ meanings.

Though the sample size is small—just 76 people—the study has some interesting implications for this rather poorly understood linguistic phenomenon. As Bankieris writes in an email to Quartz, “Our study provides a potential neural grounding for sounds symbolism.”

In linguistics, the idea of “sound symbolism” is that there’s an underlying relationship between how words sound and what they mean—and it is sometimes used to support the theory that there’s some underlying cross-language meaning that humans are hardwired to attach to certain sounds.

But some researchers argue that synesthesia, which appears in 4% of the general population, is actually an exaggerated manifestation of associations we all make from an early age—an ability most of us lose over time, and one that may help explain why children are so good at picking up other languages.

The study suggests that if synesthetes are better at detecting sound symbolism, it could tell us something about how all humans learn and perceive language: that there may be connections between sounds and meanings that are consistent across languages, and that with or without synesthesia, we’re able to pick up on them.

Christine Cuskley, an evolutionary linguist and post-doctoral fellow at the Institute for Scientific Interchange, who did not work on this study, tells Quartz that the research requires further exploration but is promising. Even if these kinds of associations between sounds and meanings turn out to be universal, however, that doesn’t mean they’re innate, she says.

“It’s very much possible that these sort of associations rely to a large extent on experience,” says Cuskley. Our experiences in the world may lead us to associate small animals with high-pitched noises, for example. And she adds that not all sound symbolism is alike—the connections might work well for words that mean big or small, for instance, but not for words that refer to shape.

Image by Arria Belli on Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.