In “Spoken language could tap into ‘universal code'”, Science Magazine says mainstream linguists are figuring out how wrong they’ve been all these years. The notion that the sign is arbitrary and its related fallacies have increasingly come in for criticism by a steady flow of research. I’ve been watching these studies trickle in over the years (e.g., MIT might have discovered a universal language just last week), and I’ve never seen a study saying, “Guess what, here’s proof we’ve been right all these years! The sign really is just as arbitrary as we’ve dogmatically insisted it simply had to be all along!”
Here’s a taste of the article:
For years, mainstream linguists have said that most of the sounds we use have no meaning. A few words—think “splash” and “bow-wow” in English—clearly have their origins in the noises of the natural world, and the universal “mama” might be the result of an infant puckering up for a kiss of milk. These kinds of words have what linguists refer to as iconicity—the ability to evoke an image in the mind’s eye. But the vast majority of words, from “fish” to “sushi,” are arbitrary. Or at least that’s what linguists thought.
To explore the idea, researchers asked pairs of students at the University of California, Santa Cruz, to invent new words for 18 contrasting ideas: up, down, big, small, good, bad, fast, slow, far, near, few, many, long, short, rough, smooth, attractive, and ugly. Their partners then had 10 seconds to guess which one of the ideas the “word inventors” were describing. The students weren’t allowed to use body language or facial expressions though they were sitting face to face, and they weren’t allowed to use sounds related to similar English words.
Surprisingly enough, the partners scored better than chance on the first round. And during subsequent rounds of the game, students got faster and more accurate at guessing which word was being created. Analyzing the data, author Marcus Perlman—a cognitive scientist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison—says the guessers were successful because the inventors consistently used certain types of vocalizations with certain words. For example, made-up words for “up” had a rising pitch, whereas made-up words for “down” had a falling pitch. “Slow” had a long duration and a low pitch, whereas “fast” had a short duration and high pitch. And “smooth” had a high degree of harmonicity, whereas “rough” had a high degree of the opposite quality—noise. Overall, each of the new words varied reliably from its opposite in at least one feature, and 57% of the words had unique prosodic “calling cards.”
The article makes clear that the study results with English speakers still need to be confirmed cross-linguistically. The first effort to do so shows that sound-meaning works pretty much the same way in Chinese. Mainstream linguists were once again surprised.