So far, we have seen that phonemes and sounds can carry meaning. In this part, you will learn about other possible clues: Do frequencies have shapes? Does the shape of a letter relate to its sound? And what do the shapes of our letters convey about our remote past and legacy? We’ll connect these pieces of “trivia” with the rest of the series. And hopefully after watching, you will see your letters and the sounds of your language in a whole new light.

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– Cymatics:…
– Nora Turoman, Suzy J Styles, “Glyph guessing for ‘oo’ and ‘ee’: spatial frequency information in sound symbolic matching for ancient and unfamiliar scripts”…
– TED Talk, Genevieve von Petzinger, “Why are these 32 symbols found in caves all over Europe”…


Hello, and welcome to Language with Chu. This is part five of the series on sounds and meaning, this is just a bit of a wrap-up to show you a bit of trivia, or actually extra things that could make you think that sounds are not all they’re made out to be. Let’s just have a couple of slides to show you that sounds maybe even have shape. Do you think so? Let’s see:


Well, this is just to remind you that the human auditory field goes from 20 to 20,000 Hertz, so that means that all the frequencies that I’m going to show right after are within what humans can hear.


There’s something called Cymatics, and it shows that sounds, or rather, to be precise, frequencies, have shapes. You can look it up on Youtube, and you can see that if you put sand or salt or whatever on a loudspeaker, and you emit a certain frequency, the sound will form these shapes. These are just three examples. Remember 20 to 20,000 Hertz. This, we can hear. These are frequencies we can hear, and they all form these interesting shapes. Nobody knows why. As far as I know, it hasn’t been really talked about, but they’re there. So maybe frequency has to do with something, with the essence of things, and maybe each sound in language conveys that.

In fact, here are some pictures of a female voice, and you can see the different vowels, /a/, /o/, /u/, and how they change in shape. It’s almost like a fractal, like a like a pattern that repeats itself over and over and over again. This hasn’t been studied much, but I think it may be just a little clue, although it’s just about frequency here. So I don’t want to get carried away, because I think there’s a lot more to sounds than just the frequency. It’s basically about your pitch, the pitch of your voice, so it can´t be all of it. But it’s interesting nonetheless. [And we each have a unique pattern, like what happens with our fingerprints.]


Another thing about shape is that, in this study, for example, they took a bunch of couples of letters from different languages, some languages that nobody would know. In fact, if you knew them, you were eliminated from the test for that couple of graphemes, those two letters. And they made people guess whether it was an /u:/ sound or an /i:/ sound. And what was interesting was that some of them were really, really easy to guess, even though the person really swore that they didn’t know the letters. It had to do with the amount of ink used, and the space between the traits. The more ink, for example, the more it was likely that the sound would be an /u:/. And this is not just people guessing, but the people who created the letters, the graphemes, also may have decided to represent that sound by something like the /u:/ being heavier, let’s say. So there’s something about letters that usually, again, seems arbitrary, but perhaps it’s not, and it has to do with the meaning of sounds.


I don’t know, I find it very, very interesting, because when you look at old alphabets, usually they tell you, well, you know, the origins are different, or this one blended in with this one, not that one… And you hardly ever see them together, really, you study them separately. But aren’t they kind of similar? Just look at these, and you’ll see that there are similarities. It’s not completely different.


But not only that, when you see some of them more closely, that are supposedly from not even the same family, and they have similarities, you start wondering, well, why is this kind of crooked here and this is kind of crooked here? Hmm, hieroglyphs, Arabic, supposedly they’re not related. Well, let me see. And why does this one look like a bull, and then in Proto-Sinaic again, and you’re talking a long, long time in history. And they changed, but not that much. So what today is the letter “A”, perhaps in the past meant a bull, an ox. Isn’t that interesting? We take the letters to be just random: “a-b-c-d-e”, but what if they actually initially meant something like they did with the hieroglyphs?


Not only that, but when you see prehistoric caves like the one in Lascaux, it’s amazing. This one is from 17,300 BC and supposedly, it depicts a world myth, how the world was created. And these people are supposedly primitive, right? They didn’t have the technology we have now, etcetera. They were just counting herd, or counting people, or whatever. Except the patterns, the designs, repeat over and over in different territories, in different countries, from people who couldn’t have been in touch. Not only that but there’s a researcher, I forget her name now [Genevieve von Petzinger] who discovered that there are 32 geometric sign or symbols that are usually ignored in these caves, because it’s just like a little line, a little circle, or whatever, but that repeat over and over across these caves. And there’s something about the shape of what is depicted that resembles the old alphabets. So what if there was some kind of resemblance between sound and meaning, or the shape of letters or symbols and meanings? It’s something that I don’t think is too far out, because you see it already in Chinese.

chinese phonogram.png

You see sounds and graphemes and you see that part of the ideogram sometimes has a phonetic part, so it picks what sounded like one character and it puts it into another character to make it sound similar. Other times, you have just the idea in a character. But there’s always this kind of combination and correlation between sound and meaning, even though we think Chinese is so difficult, and there’s nothing in it that tells you the sound from the word. Well there is a little bit. There’s not a lot like in Latin languages or in English, but you can find this way of grouping. You can find ways of grouping things by their essence too.

chinese classifiers.png

In Chinese, you use classifiers to talk about something… flat objects, for example. And you say one classifier for flat (a sheet of paper, for example ). So that essence in Chinese is conveyed by the classifiers. [1/2/3… + flat thing + sheet of paper]. But maybe it’s also conveyed across all languages in the sounds. Maybe we choose different sounds because they mean something different, like I explained with phonosemantics.

So, again, I hope that I’ve given you some questions to ask yourself about why this topic could be interesting. I really don’t have the answer, but I’m going to continue researching because I think it’s fascinating, and that it gets ignored, even though it could be telling us about the “molecules of language”. Basically, the genetic imprint, if you want. We do that a lot in biology, and we haven’t done it in language, so I find it a real, real pity. Anyway, I hope you like these videos, and please subscribe to my channel if you like this, or like this video or these videos, or share or leave me a comment with what your questions about language and sounds are. And see you next time for more videos about linguistic curiosities and language complexity. Bye bye!