Non‐Arbitrariness in Mapping Word Form to Meaning: Cross‐Linguistic Formal Markers of Word Concreteness

Cognitive Science 41 (4):1071-1089 (2017)


Arbitrary symbolism is a linguistic doctrine that predicts an orthogonal relationship between word forms and their corresponding meanings. Recent corpora analyses have demonstrated violations of arbitrary symbolism with respect to concreteness, a variable characterizing the sensorimotor salience of a word. In addition to qualitative semantic differences, abstract and concrete words are also marked by distinct morphophonological structures such as length and morphological complexity. Native English speakers show sensitivity to these markers in tasks such as auditory word recognition and naming. One unanswered question is whether this violation of arbitrariness reflects an idiosyncratic property of the English lexicon or whether word concreteness is a marked phenomenon across other natural languages. We isolated concrete and abstract English nouns, and translated each into Russian, Arabic, Dutch, Mandarin, Hindi, Korean, Hebrew, and American Sign Language. We conducted offline acoustic analyses of abstract and concrete word length discrepancies across languages. In a separate experiment, native English speakers with no prior knowledge of these foreign languages judged concreteness of these nouns. Each naïve participant heard pre-recorded words presented in randomized blocks of three foreign languages following a brief listening exposure to a narrative sample from each respective language. Concrete and abstract words differed by length across five of eight languages, and prediction accuracy exceeded chance for four of eight languages. These results suggest that word concreteness is a marked phenomenon across several of the world's most widely spoken languages. We interpret these findings as supportive of an adaptive cognitive heuristic that allows listeners to exploit non-arbitrary mappings of word form to word meaning.

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