Words meaning ‘rough’ feature trill sound in languages round the globe, finds study

LONDON, Jan 23: In languages around the world, words describing ‘rough’ are very likely to feature a ‘trilled r’ sound, a pattern that stretches back to over 6,000 years, a new study has revealed.
From a worldwide sample of 332 spoken languages, linguists analysed words meaning ‘rough’ and ‘smooth’. They discovered a strong link between the sounds of speech and the sense of touch, which has influenced the structure of modern languages.
The team of researchers from the University of Birmingham, Radboud University, and the University of British Columbia has published the findings in Scientific Reports, an online peer-reviewed open-access journal.
Compared to words meaning ‘smooth’, the words that mean ‘rough’ were nearly four times as likely to contain a trilled ‘r’ sound – from Basque ‘zakarra’ and Mongolian ‘barzgar’ to Dutch ‘ruw’ and Hungarian ‘durva’.
All these words feature the common sound – an ‘r’ pronounced as an Italian speaker might say ‘arrivederci’.
The researchers also found the ‘r-for-rough’ pattern is prevalent across sensory words in 38 present-day Indo-European languages. It can even be traced to the reconstructed roots of Proto-Indo-European, indicating the pattern has likely existed in this large language family for more than six millennia.
For English and Hungarian, two unrelated languages, some 60 per cent of words for rougher textures, such as ‘rough’, ‘coarse’, ‘gnarled’ and ‘durva’, ‘érdes’, ‘göcsörtös’ contain an ‘r’ sound twice as frequent as for words for smoother textures, such as ‘smooth’, ‘silky’, ‘oily’ and ‘sima’, ‘selymes’ and ‘olajos’.
Around three-quarters of the world’s spoken languages have an ‘r’ sound. And the trilled ‘r’ is the most common variant.
However, not all languages have a trilled ‘r’ and some lack these sounds (‘rhotics’) altogether. The pattern is found most strongly among those languages that feature specifically a trilled ‘r’.
Co-author Dr Mark Dingemanse, an associate professor in language and communication at Radboud University, said, “On their own, any of these patterns would be quite striking. But taken together, they demonstrate a deep-rooted and widespread association between the sounds of speech and our sense of touch.”
“Our findings reveal that the link between ‘r’ and roughness comes naturally to us, making the association more likely to surface and to stick around as words evolve with time.”
This is one of the most widespread examples of cross-modal iconicity in spoken languages, linking sounds of speech to the sense of touch, said another co-author Dr Bodo Winter, a senior lecturer in Cognitive Linguistics at the University of Birmingham.
“Such cross-modal associations can play a significant role in shaping the forms of spoken words in natural languages, showing that many aspects of language structure are shaped by the human ability to spot and use perceptual analogies that create iconic links between form and meaning,” Winter added. (PTI)