How arbitrary is language?

Aug 14, 2014

Words in the English language are structured to help children learn according to research led by Lancaster University.

Words like "woof" accurately represent the sound of a dog while sounds with similar meanings may have a similar structure eg the "sl" sound at the beginning of a word often has negative properties as in "slime, slur, slum, slug".

An international team led by Professor Padraic Monaghan from the Department of Psychology at Lancaster University provides for the first time a comprehensive analysis of sound meaning structure using from biology and genetics.

The research, published in the Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society B, shows that the structure of the vocabulary in English helps both children and adults.

He said: "Sounds relate to meaning for the words that children first encounter, addressing a critical question about how language is structured to aid learning.

"However, the later adult vocabulary is arbitrary, consistent with computational models of efficient language production and accurate ."

The debate about whether the sound of words contains information about meaning has continued for over 2,300 years.

This issue lies at the foundation of modern linguistics and psychology of language, which has been brought into stark relief by recent studies of sound symbolism where words actually sound like their meaning.

Sound symbolism has been suggested to be prevalent in language and necessary for acquisition by .

Explore further: Multilingual or not, infants learn words best when it sounds like home

More information: How arbitrary is language? by Padraic Monaghan, Richard C Shillcock, Morten H Christiansen and Simon Kirby, rstb.royalsocietypublishing.or… .1098/rstb.2013.0299

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Study: Word sounds contain clues for language learners

Sep 13, 2011

(PhysOrg.com) -- Why do words sound the way they do? For over a century, it has been a central tenet of linguistic theory that there is a completely arbitrary relationship between how a word sounds and what it means.

Study shows bilingual children have a two-tracked mind

Jul 11, 2013

Adults learning a foreign language often need flash cards, tapes, and practice, practice, practice. Children, on the other hand, seem to pick up their native language out of thin air. The learning process is even more remarkable ...

Study finds potential key to learning a new language

Nov 20, 2013

A new study by University of Houston (UH) researchers may lead to dramatic changes in the way language is taught and learned – especially a second language. These findings are important because statistics show 60 percent ...

Hear Jane read: Researcher gives new meaning to semantics

Jul 15, 2014

For years a key way of diagnosing dyslexia has been how well a person reads aloud. Similarly, the reading skills of adult readers also have been assessed by having them read words aloud. "The idea is that the more you read ...

Recommended for you

Why are UK teenagers skipping school?

Dec 18, 2014

Analysis of the results of a large-scale survey reveals the extent of truancy in English secondary schools and sheds light on the mental health of the country's teens.

Fewer lectures, more group work

Dec 18, 2014

Professor Cees van der Vleuten from Maastricht University is a Visiting Professor at Wits University who believes that learning should be student centred.

How to teach all students to think critically

Dec 18, 2014

All first year students at the University of Technology Sydney could soon be required to take a compulsory maths course in an attempt to give them some numerical thinking skills. ...

User comments : 0

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.