Neurobiologist Discusses The Ability To Guess Meaning of Foreign Words

Humans can apparently guess the meaning of a word in a different language, according to a postdoctoral scientist in neurobiology from Yale University, Madhuvanthi Kannan. She explains the ‘ability’ in terms of sound symbolism and also relates it to the phenomenon of synaesthesia.


In a Scientific American article, Kannan explains that most people would be able to point out the correct meaning of unknown words when given the choice between two words and two meanings. This is so because the brain is allegedly wired in such a way that we are better able to understand sound symbolism in childhood than in adulthood. With time, this ‘talent’ is lost as we learn our first language.

Kannan explains that as per sound symbolism, the very sound of a word should hint at its meaning because of how our brain correlates sound to meaning in terms of how our mouths move when we say individual words.

“In domains such as big/small, sound symbolic words translate aspects of size to physical aspects of the vocal tract, a linguistic feature termed iconicity,” writes Kannan. “When we say ’grand’ (French, for large), for example, our mouth expands as if to mimic the size of the object we refer to, whereas, when we say’petit’, the vocal tract constricts, and the word plants an impression of a tiny object.”

Kannan further exemplifies her statements by mentioning non-existent words.

“The trend holds even for non-existent words. In a famous linguistic test, subjects almost always gravitate to the non-word ’baluma’ to describe rounded shapes and ’takete’ for more angular objects. If you think about it, there appears to be something inherently rounded about ’baluma’, and sharp and pointed about ’takete’. Likewise… ’tobi’ seems like an apt choice to depict big objects whereas ’kekere’ is more fitting for smaller entities. In other words, the dimensions are ostensibly encoded in the sound of the words.”

Essentially, the key would lie in the brain being cross-wired when we are only infants, such that we can understand meanings from sound symbolism. Kannan draws a parallel between this ability and the phenomenon known as synaesthesia. Synaesthetes are people (1 % of the world population) who automatically see a colour when they hear a word, as though they can ‘see sounds’; or, they can ‘taste a smell’. This is due to a cross-wiring occurring in the brain whereby an increased number of neurones connect in an unusual manner. In a new study, it was found that both synaesthetes and non-synaesthetes were able to guess whether foreign words in other languages meant either big/small or loud/quiet. However, synaesthetes were better at the guessing game, suggesting that synaesthesia might be linked to sound symbolism.

“It is tempting to postulate that their increased sensitivity to sound symbolism, a process that links auditory and visual senses, emerges from the cross-wirings seen in synaesthesia,” writes Kannan.

If the speculations were to be true, non-synaesthetes would differ from synaesthetes in terms of the persistence of the cross-wiring.

“But as we specialise in our native language, these cross-connections wither away and we grow out of our sensitivity to foreign languages,” explains Kannan. “Scientists postulate that in synaesthetes, on the other hand, the cross-wirings persist into adulthood, due to genetic mutations that interfere with the pruning process.”

In case you are wondering how does synaesthesia works, check out how an artist with the neurological condition depicts the sounds she hears.

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