Language universals

Random thought I had on the drive to work: human languages are predisposed to certain behavior for physiological and/or neurological reasons: vowels are largely a function of what sounds our mouth and tongue can easily produce and what sounds are differentiable to the human ear; syllable structure has a lot to do with lungs powering speech; labials are some of the easiest phonemes for babies to articulate; etc.

This has been used humorously by many YouTube videos transcribing a video phonetically into another language.  However, a lot of these transcriptions are a bit of a stretch.

Okay, the possible space of sounds is very, very, very large, but there are a lot of languages and they have large vocabularies and number of pairwise combinations of languages is very large too.  It seems like two syllables appearing in different languages happens occasionally, a two-syllable word is a coincidence, and anything more just doesn’t happen.  Why isn’t there some phrase in language A that means something else in language B?  This calls for a Fermi calculation…

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