ULG’s Language Solutions Blog

Do We Speak a Universal Language?


A study published by the Los Angeles Times suggests that there may be a lot more in common between global languages than we think.

Research published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found a connection between the sound and meaning of words, indicating there could be aspects of a universal language spoken by all people. Specifically, the study’s results observed that certain words were often produced using the same sounds regardless of geographic location.

The study goes against the age-old linguistic ideal that the connection between a word’s meaning and its sound are arbitrary.

Phonetic Relevance

It was observed that ‘nose,’ for instance, usually has a ‘neh’ or ‘oo’ sound. Words for ‘red’ and ‘round’ more than likely utilize an ‘r’ sound. As another example, the word for tongue is likely to have an ‘l’ sound.

Not only did researchers find words using the same sounds across languages, but also similarities when words didn’t use certain sounds.

The study found that pronouns stood out in the omission of certain sounds. ‘I,’ for example, was found usually not to use u, p, b, t, s, r or l sounds. Similarly, researchers identified that the word ‘You’ was not likely to use u, o, p, t, d, q, s, r and l sounds.

The analysis was based on the use of 40-100 words in 62 percent of the world’s languages. Although the study didn’t use anything near the total amount of words in the English language, the fact that it spanned more than half the world’s languages shows a strong connection between words and the sounds made to produce them.

Cause for Correlation Unknown

Aside from theories, the research team couldn’t pinpoint exactly why the correlation between a word and its sound emerged. It’s likely the findings will be a starting point for similar studies on language and how words are learned or processed.

It should also be noted, as pointed out by the Los Angeles Times, that the connections between words and their sounds didn’t show up universally in unrelated languages, but came up of often.

Down the road, subsequent findings could influence the way translation is done both independently and commercially. Any insight into the workings of different languages can give a step up to individual translators or Language Solutions Providers (LSPs).

Time will tell how our understanding of language and professional translation develops in the future. New technology and research will likely expand our knowledge of different languages and their distinguishing factors. But for the time being, translation done right includes strong linguists, a commitment to quality and the willingness to get the job done accurately.