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Science by and large holds that language is arbitrary. There’s nothing inherent about the word cat that actually represents a cat — otherwise, why would “cat” be “neko” in Japanese, “mao” in Chinese, “billee” in Hindi and “kissa” in Finnish? The sounds of most words, in general, are unrelated to what they mean. The symbolized bears no relation to the sign.

But this stands in contrast to the fact that the “sign” has a significant effect on how we experience the “symbolized.” For example, “aurora” sounds and looks beautiful, and would be a much less enticing word to use if it sounded like “sasquatch.” Long words sound complicated, short words sound simple. Words with guttural consonants sound harsh, words with soft consonants sound gentle. I previously discussed in this column how 大和言葉 (Yamato kotoba, native Japanese words) such as 始める (hajimeru, to start) sound more casual and simple than 漢語 (kango,Chinese loan-words) like 開始 (kaishi, start). Is this all due to cultural context, or is there something innate about how the sounds of words influence their meaning?

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