The research is still just scraping the surface, but this look into whether languages have chosen words based on how they sounds is very interesting reading, and the study seems well constructed enough to make the results believable.
Do sounds have meaning?
Obviously, words do. But that’s not what I’m talking about. Instead, think about the sounds that make up words. When the word was coined, were the sounds chosen because those sounds already made people think of the concept being described?
That’s a difficult theory to prove, but there’s been some research that supports it. New Scientist has a really fascinating article up about the studies that suggest the sounds in our words aren’t totally random. Instead, we all might associate sounds with other senses to some degree. If that sounds a lot like synesthesia … well, that’s the point. The idea behind this theory is that, as with many neurological phenomena, synesthesia exists on a continuum. A true synesthete might hear the word “table” and think of it as a color, or associate it with a smell. But most of us, if given the choice between two unfamiliar words, can tell which one means pointy at rate better than chance.
I would hope that future research doesn’t show signs of the decline effect (wikipedia entry), although it depends on exact replication – maybe what the studies are seeing are only related to relatively simple or evocative words? Would the same result be seen for more obscure terms or terms that used less frequently – like, say, archaic. I would be remiss to not note that while trying to find such a word, I ended up on the longest words in the English language page and the English words with uncommon properties page. after glancing over both, I realised that there are any number of terms that wouldn’t apply – because they are constructed (I thought of tricycle, then saw that it was -cycle), because they actually are what they sound like (eg Honorificabilitudinitatibus – use by Shakespeare for this very reason, I presume), or were proper nouns, which don’t really count.