The Specificity of Sound Symbolic Correspondences in Spoken Language

Cognitive Science:2191-2220 (2017)
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Abstract

Although language has long been regarded as a primarily arbitrary system, sound symbolism, or non-arbitrary correspondences between the sound of a word and its meaning, also exists in natural language. Previous research suggests that listeners are sensitive to sound symbolism. However, little is known about the specificity of these mappings. This study investigated whether sound symbolic properties correspond to specific meanings, or whether these properties generalize across semantic dimensions. In three experiments, native English-speaking adults heard sound symbolic foreign words for dimensional adjective pairs and for each foreign word, selected a translation among English antonyms that either matched or mismatched with the correct meaning dimension. Listeners agreed more reliably on the English translation for matched relative to mismatched dimensions, though reliable cross-dimensional mappings did occur. These findings suggest that although sound symbolic properties generalize to meanings that may share overlapping semantic features, sound symbolic mappings offer semantic specificity.

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