A study of nearly two thirds of the world’s 6000+ languages has revealed widespread associations between the sounds of words and their meanings. It has long been known that when people are shown pictures of an amorphous blob and a star-like shape and are asked which one is likely named “bouba” and which one “kiki”, speakers of different languages consistently associate the blob with the former word and the star with the latter. Damián Blasi of the University of Zurich and colleagues have now found that a large proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items have strong associations with specific speech sounds across continents and linguistic families. The distributions of the associations with time and location suggest that many words arose independently, potentially revealing deep connections between the developments of languages.