(almost) everything you ever wanted to know about sound-symbolism research but were too afraid to ask.

Publications are like buses. Not because you spend most of your PhD with no publications then two turn up at once (although that is what’s just happened to me), but because you might get overtaken by another bus going the same way, and you might want to be somewhere else by the time you get to your original destination.

The bus I’ve just taken is my new review paper:

Lockwood, G., & Dingemanse, M. (2015). Iconicity in the lab: a review of behavioral, developmental, and neuroimaging research into sound-symbolism. Language Sciences, 1246. http://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01246

I wrote it along with Mark Dingemanse, my supervisor at the Max Planck Institute. It covers experimental research on sound-symbolism from the last few years and pulls together the main themes and findings so far. To summarise, these are:

  1. That large vowels (e.g. a, o) are associated with large things and slow things and dark things and heavy things
  2. That small vowels (e.g. i, e) are associated with small things and fast things and bright things and light things
  3. That voiced consonants (e.g. b, g) have the same kind of associations as large vowels
  4. That voiceless consonants (e.g. p, k) have the same kind of associations as small vowels
  5. That this is probably due to a combination of acoustic properties (i.e. the way something sounds when you hear it) and articulatory properties (i.e. the way something feels when you say it)
  6. That these cross-modal associations mean people can guess the meanings of sound-symbolic words in languages that they don’t know
  7. That these cross-modal associations mean children and adults learn sound-symbolic words more easily
  8. That these cross-modal associations in sound-symbolic words elicit either different brain processes from regular words and/or stronger versions of the same brain processes as regular words
  9. That it’s more informative to investigate these cross-modal associations using real sound-symbolic words from real languages than using non-words from made-up languages
  10. That it’s more informative to investigate these cross-modal associations using complicated experiment tasks than asking participants to choose between two options
  11. That it’s not accurate to look at arbitrariness and iconicity are two competitors in a zero-sum language game, even if it does make our work seem more important

We’re pretty happy with this, and the paper is a nice one-stop shop for everything you’ve ever wanted to know about sound-symbolism research but were too afraid to ask. We don’t finish it off with a grand model of how it works, because we don’t really know (and because I’ve still got at least two more experiments to do in my PhD before I’ll have a decent idea), but we do collect a lot of individual strands of research into a few coherent themes which should be useful for anybody else who’s doing similar stuff.

Even though it’s hot off the press this morning, it’s taken a long time to get to this stage. I started doing all the reading and the writing in spring 2014, then Mark and I restructured it quite a lot, and then it got put on the back burner while I read more things and did more things. We came back to it at the start of this year, added and changed a few things, and submitted it earlier this summer. After a fairly quick and painless review process, it’s now out.

The first frustration is that there was a small but important misprint in the text; it’s frustrating that it’s there, it’s frustrating that it slipped past the two authors, two reviewers, and editor, and it’s frustrating that Frontiers won’t amend it (despite being an online-only journal). In this misprint, we accidentally misreport Moos et al. (2014). They found that people associate the vowel [a] with the colour red, and that this colour association becomes more yellow/green as the vowel gets smaller (like the vowel [i]). However, we wrote this the wrong way round in the text and accompanying figure. So, here’s the correct version of Figure 1 from the review paper:

cross-modal mappings - vowel space (bw) for distribution


Secondly, since submitting the article and having the positive reviews back, I’ve come across two studies in particular which I wish we could have included but couldn’t because we were already on that bus. These studies are:

Sidhu, D. M., & Pexman, P. M. (2015). What’s in a Name? Sound Symbolism and Gender in First Names. PloS One, 10(5), e0126809. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0126809(which starts and ends with the Shakespeare quote about roses by different names smelling as sweet to describe arbitrariness and iconicity, which is a quote I’ve always wanted to use myself, so good on them)

Jones, M., Vinson, D., Clostre, N., Zhu, A. L., Santiago, J., & Vigliocco, G. (2014). The bouba effect: sound-shape iconicity in iterated and implicit learning. In Proceedings of the 36th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society. (pp. 2459–2464). Québec.(which I’d seen referred to in various presentations as a work in progress, but I hadn’t come across the actual, citable CogSci conference paper until a couple of weeks ago)

Both these studies investigate the kiki/bouba effect, which is the way people associate spiky shapes with spiky sounds (i.e. small vowels and voiceless consonants) and round shapes with round sounds (i.e. rounded vowels like o and voiced consonants). Both studies have well-designed methods which are quite complicated to explain but address the questions really well, and find similar things. The original kiki/bouba studies found the split between round and spiky from making people choose between two options, and so people chose round shapes with round sounds and spiky shapes with spiky sounds. Simple enough.

However, these two studies show that roundness and spikiness don’t contribute equally to the effect. Rather, there’s a massive effect of roundness, while the associations between spiky sounds and spikiness is much less strong, and may even just be an association by default because it was the other option in the original studies.I’d then have included another paragraph or two in the review paper about how future studies can and should address whether the associations outlined in points 1-4 fall along an even continuum (in the way that size associations seem to fall evenly between i and a) or whether one particular feature is driving the effect (in the way that roundness drives the round/spiky non-continuum). Sadly, I only came across these studies after it was too late to include them, but hopefully they’ll be picked up on by others in future!


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