One of the characteristics of language is that there is no relationship between the way that words sound and their meaning. For example, there is nothing window-like about the word window, and it is named with completely different sounds in other languages, from fenêtre in French to shubak in Arabic. In this talk, I will discuss cases where the sounds of words are not arbitrary. I will start by showing what characterises the sounds of swear words across the world’s languages. I will then discuss which languages have more words whose sounds express their meaning, and why that is the case. I will end with an example that illustrates that our intuition regarding whether the sounds of certain words express their meaning can be very wrong.
Dr. Shiri Lev-Ari is a cognitive scientist studying language from a social perspective. She is particularly interested in how language evolution is shaped by the social needs of the society. She holds a PhD from The University of Chicago and is currently a lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London.
The music used in this episode is by Thula Borah and is used with permission.