Sound instincts

According to an article I came across today, humans possibly have innate preferences for the sound patterns found in languages which might help babes to distinguish language from non-language and to acquire language.

An experiment undertaken by the National Academy of Sciences found that even new born babies show a preference for combinations of phonemes common in human languages over rare or non-linguistic combinations of phonemes. For example, it is relatively common for words to begin with bl, not very rare for them to start with lb. This suggests that the range of sound combinations found in languages, which though large, is limited by our brains innate preferences.

I found another report on this story on Science Daily which provides more details.

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This entry was posted in Language, Language acquisition, Linguistics.

11 Responses to Sound instincts

  1. Lev says:

    Isn’t it widely accepted that language universals are programmed into us?

  2. Lev says:

    Seriously? You get your science news from this site?
    http://english.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13921021000393

  3. Simon says:

    Lev – there’s a lot of dispute about whether language universals are programmed into us, and if so, which ones, as far as I understand.

    That site might not be the most reliable for science news, and I will link to the results of the research if I can find them.

  4. David Eger says:

    “new born babies show a preference for combinations of phonemes common in human languages over rare or non-linguistic combinations of phonemes.”

    By ‘preference’, are we talking about the tendency of babies to produce these sounds or their preference for hearing them? Babies do not start ‘babbling’ until they are a few months old – the only sound a new born baby makes is crying – so it seems unlikely to be the former. If the latter is the case, then how do you gauge a new born baby’s preference for particular sounds? How would you eliminate all other factors that might influence a baby’s level of contenment? Does bl or lb really make any difference to a baby over hunger, colic or being at its mother’s breast?

    If it were talking about the sounds produced by babies in the babbling stage, the assertion would not surprise me. Surely that is precisely why certain sounds are common in language whilst others are rare or non-existent.

  5. Ludovic says:

    My baby preferes some sounds like “Mam mam mam” when she wants to eat…
    We never talked to her with this kind of baby word but she keeps using it.
    Isn’t why we say mumy for mother ?

  6. Simon says:

    David – they are talking about hearing rather than producing sounds in the new born babies.

  7. David Eger says:

    “My baby preferes some sounds like “Mam mam mam” when she wants to eat…
    We never talked to her with this kind of baby word but she keeps using it.
    Isn’t why we say mumy for mother ?”

    You may have meant this in jest, Ludovic, but I suspect that there is some truth in it. It is the sound made when a toothless baby vocalises whilst making the motions of sucking its mother’s breast or, later on, miming the act of eating. It is no coincidence that there are a lot of female-related words beginning with ‘m’, starting with Latin mamma (=breast; => mammal, mammary etc.).

    All the Indo-European languages (as far as I know) have ‘m’ words for mother: madre, Mutter, mère, мать, μητέρα, mam, mata, mathair…

    and a number of non-Indo-European ones too:
    Estonian: ema
    Aramaic: ima

    Diminutive/familiar forms like are widespread, irrespctive of the ‘proper’ word.

    Latvian, one of the older Indo-European languages, has a slew of words for females beginning with ‘m’:

    māte = mother
    māsa = sister
    meita = daughter
    meitene = girl
    māsica = female cousin

  8. David Eger says:

    I seem to have lost some text. I meant to say:

    Diminutive/familiar forms like mum, mom, mummy, mommy, mammy, mama, maman are widespread, irrespctive of the ‘proper’ word.

  9. Lev says:

    “Baby talk” words tend to consist of two identical or close syllables: “baby”, “mama”, “papa” / “daddy”, etc.

  10. Lev says:

    David, what do you mean by an “old” language?

  11. David Eger says:

    what do you mean by an “old” language?

    Yes, ‘old’ is a bit of a non-description of a language. The Baltic languages (Lithuanian more than Latvian, I think) are regarded by many linguists as the closest surviving languages to Sanskrit, ergo the clearest window we have, among modern languages, onto Proto-Indo-European.

    The caveat regarding Latvian is that roughly half the territory in which it is now spoken was once inhabited by Finno-Ugric (Livonian) speakers, so it doubtless contains a certain amount of Finno-Ugric vocabulary and phonology.