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.