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      Defining iconicity: An articulation-based methodology for explaining the phonological structure of ideophones


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          Iconicity is when linguistic units are perceived as ‘sounding like what they mean,’ so that phonological structure of an iconic word is what begets its meaning through perceived imitation, rather than an arbitrary semantic link. Fundamental examples are onomatopoeia, e.g., dog’s barking: woof woof (English), wou wou (Cantonese), wan wan (Japanese), hau hau (Polish). Systematicity is often conflated with iconicity because it is also a phenomenon whereby a word begets its meaning from phonological structure, albeit through (arbitrary) statistical relationships, as opposed to perceived imitation. One example is gl- (Germanic languages), where speakers can intuit the meaning ‘light’ via knowledge of similar words, e.g., glisten, glint, glow, gleam, glimmer. This conflation of iconicity and systematicity arises from questions like ‘How can we differentiate or qualify perceived imitation from (arbitrary) statistical relationships?’ So far there is no proposal to answer this question. By drawing observations from the visual modality, this paper mediates ambiguity between iconicity and systematicity in spoken language by proposing a methodology which explains how iconicity is achieved through perceptuo-motor analogies derived from oral articulatory gesture. We propose that universal accessibility of articulatory gestures, and human ability to create (perceptuo-motor) analogy, is what in turn makes iconicity universal and thus easily learnable by speakers regardless of language background, as studies have shown. Conversely, our methodology allows one to argue which words are devoid of iconicity seeing as such words should not be explainable in terms of articulatory gesture. We use ideophones from Chaoyang (Southern Min) to illustrate our methodology.

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          Arbitrariness, Iconicity, and Systematicity in Language.

          The notion that the form of a word bears an arbitrary relation to its meaning accounts only partly for the attested relations between form and meaning in the languages of the world. Recent research suggests a more textured view of vocabulary structure, in which arbitrariness is complemented by iconicity (aspects of form resemble aspects of meaning) and systematicity (statistical regularities in forms predict function). Experimental evidence suggests these form-to-meaning correspondences serve different functions in language processing, development, and communication: systematicity facilitates category learning by means of phonological cues, iconicity facilitates word learning and communication by means of perceptuomotor analogies, and arbitrariness facilitates meaning individuation through distinctive forms. Processes of cultural evolution help to explain how these competing motivations shape vocabulary structure.
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            Sound-meaning association biases evidenced across thousands of languages.

            It is widely assumed that one of the fundamental properties of spoken language is the arbitrary relation between sound and meaning. Some exceptions in the form of nonarbitrary associations have been documented in linguistics, cognitive science, and anthropology, but these studies only involved small subsets of the 6,000+ languages spoken in the world today. By analyzing word lists covering nearly two-thirds of the world's languages, we demonstrate that a considerable proportion of 100 basic vocabulary items carry strong associations with specific kinds of human speech sounds, occurring persistently across continents and linguistic lineages (linguistic families or isolates). Prominently among these relations, we find property words ("small" and i, "full" and p or b) and body part terms ("tongue" and l, "nose" and n). The areal and historical distribution of these associations suggests that they often emerge independently rather than being inherited or borrowed. Our results therefore have important implications for the language sciences, given that nonarbitrary associations have been proposed to play a critical role in the emergence of cross-modal mappings, the acquisition of language, and the evolution of our species' unique communication system.
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              Sound symbolism facilitates early verb learning.

              Some words are sound-symbolic in that they involve a non-arbitrary relationship between sound and meaning. Here, we report that 25-month-old children are sensitive to cross-linguistically valid sound-symbolic matches in the domain of action and that this sound symbolism facilitates verb learning in young children. We constructed a set of novel sound-symbolic verbs whose sounds were judged to match certain actions better than others, as confirmed by adult Japanese- as well as English speakers, and by 2- and 3-year-old Japanese-speaking children. These sound-symbolic verbs, together with other novel non-sound-symbolic verbs, were used in a verb learning task with 3-year-old Japanese children. In line with the previous literature, 3-year-olds could not generalize the meaning of novel non-sound-symbolic verbs on the basis of the sameness of action. However, 3-year-olds could correctly generalize the meaning of novel sound-symbolic verbs. These results suggest that iconic scaffolding by means of sound symbolism plays an important role in early verb learning.

                Author and article information

                Glossa: a journal of general linguistics
                Ubiquity Press
                26 June 2019
                : 4
                : 1
                : 72
                [1 ]Department of Linguistics, the University of Hong Kong, HK
                Author information
                Copyright: © 2019 The Author(s)

                This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/.

                : 06 December 2018
                : 15 April 2019
                Overview article

                General linguistics,Linguistics & Semiotics
                sound symbolism,articulatory phonetics,phonosemantics,ideophones,iconicity


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