Calculating the Language of Babel
by Sara Reardon
To an extraterrestrial, human language would be nonsensical. For starters, there are thousands of languages, many of which sound nothing like each other, and each language has thousands of words that appear to have no rhyme or reason. By creating “alien languages” and teaching them to volunteers, researchers are trying to better understand what about a language makes it learnable and how languages might have evolved.
Words don’t necessarily sound like or look like the object they connote. For example, the word “microorganism” is long, although the creatures themselves are tiny, whereas the huge whale has to make do with a very short moniker. Despite this, many languages do have what Padraic Monaghan of Lancaster University in the United Kingdom, calls “pockets of systematicity.” Many English words beginning with “sn,” for instance, tend to have something to do with the nose: sneeze, snort, snot. In many languages, vowels made with the back of the tongue, such as “o” and “ah,” tend to appear in words that describe something big (boulder), whereas vowels made at the front of the mouth, such as “ee,” often denote something smaller (flea). It’s unclear why these “pockets” exist: whether they’re accidents or are somehow tied to language learning. “Maybe they get people going” when they’re learning a new language, Monaghan speculates…
(read more: Science NOW)
(image: The Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the Elder - 1563)