‘Rough’ Words Feature a Trill Sound in Languages Around the Globe

Summary: Study reveals a link between spoken languages and the sense of touch.

Source: University of Birmingham

In languages spoken around the world, words describing rough surfaces are highly likely to feature a ‘trilled /r/’ sound – a linguistic pattern that stretches back over 6,000 years, a new study reveals.

Language scientists first analysed words for ‘rough’ and ‘smooth’ in a worldwide sample of 332 spoken languages – discovering a strong link between the sounds of speech and the sense of touch, which has influenced the structure of modern languages.

Compared to words meaning ‘smooth’, 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, these words feature the common sound – an ‘r’ pronounced as an Italian speaker might say ‘arrivederci’.

Next, they found that 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 that the pattern has likely existed in this large language family for more than six millennia.

In the case of English and Hungarian, two unrelated languages, they found that in both languages, some 60% of words for rougher textures, such as rough’, ‘coarse’, ‘gnarled’ and ‘durva’, ‘érdes’, ‘göcsörtös’ contain an ‘/r/’ sound – more than twice as frequent as for words for smoother textures, such as ‘smooth’, ‘silky’, ‘oily’ and ‘sima’, ‘selymes’, ‘olajos’.

The international team of researchers from the University of Birmingham, Radboud University, and the University of British Columbia has published its findings in Scientific Reports.

Co-author Dr Mark Dingemanse, Associate Professor in Language and Communication at Radboud University, commented: “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 over time.”

This shows a map
The prevalence of trilled /r/ for ‘rough’ vs ‘smooth’ in 112 languages from 25 unrelated families. The paper reports 4 studies of a larger range of languages and a larger range of words, including from the Americas, where trilled /r/ is rare and the pattern consequently absent. This simplified map combines Figure 2 and Fig 4A from the paper. Credit: University of Birmingham

Co-author Dr Bodo Winter, Senior Lecturer in Cognitive Linguistics at the University of Birmingham, commented: “This is one of the most widespread examples so far of cross-modal iconicity in spoken languages – linking the sounds of speech to the sense of touch.

“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.”

Around three-quarters of the world’s spoken languages have an /r/ sound, and the trilled /r/ is the most common variant. Not all languages have a trilled /r/ and some lack these sounds (‘rhotics’) altogether. Worldwide, the pattern is found most strongly among those languages that feature specifically a trilled /r/.

About this language research news

Author: Tony Moran
Source: University of Birmingham
Contact: Tony Moran – University of Birmingham
Image: The image is credited to University of Birmingham

Original Research: Open access.
Trilled /r/ is associated with roughness, linking sound and touch across spoken languages” by Bodo Winter, Márton Sóskuthy, Marcus Perlman & Mark Dingemanse. Scientific Reports


Trilled /r/ is associated with roughness, linking sound and touch across spoken languages

Cross-modal integration between sound and texture is important to perception and action. Here we show this has repercussions for the structure of spoken languages. We present a new statistical universal linking speech with the evolutionarily ancient sense of touch.

Words that express roughness—the primary perceptual dimension of texture—are highly likely to feature a trilled /r/, the most commonly occurring rhotic consonant. In four studies, we show the pattern to be extremely robust, being the first widespread pattern of iconicity documented not just across a large, diverse sample of the world’s spoken languages, but also across numerous sensory words within languages.

Our deep analysis of Indo-European languages and Proto-Indo-European roots indicates remarkable historical stability of the pattern, which appears to date back at least 6000 years.

Join our Newsletter
I agree to have my personal information transferred to AWeber for Neuroscience Newsletter ( more information )
Sign up to receive our recent neuroscience headlines and summaries sent to your email once a day, totally free.
We hate spam and only use your email to contact you about newsletters. You can cancel your subscription any time.