Is sound symbolism an affordance? Open Access

Michelini, Leonardo (Summer 2022)

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Sound symbolism is a non-arbitrary link between word and meaning. Over the last decades, studies have emphasized the ubiquity of this phenomenon in language and argued that it is an important factor in understanding language evolution and development. However, precisely characterizing the role that sound symbolism plays and how it is situated within the broader communicative system has been a difficult task. Researchers have tentatively proposed that sound symbolism can be understood as an affordance, but this notion remains underexplored. Thus, this investigation is chiefly concerned with fleshing out this hypothesis and testing it empirically. If sound symbolism is understood as a communicative tool that facilitates linguistic and perceptual processing, this functional purpose could be interpreted as an affordance that constrains the range of sound-to-meaning mappings. Alternatively, sound symbolism itself could be considered an affordance for iconic representation in prosody (e.g., depicting the size of the referent using tone of voice). A preliminary experiment was conducted to determine whether our materials, animal images and pseudowords, evoked the predicted size magnitude. A second experiment assessed whether participants would assign labels to complex objects based on shared size similarities between the two. Finally, the third experiment examined whether sound-symbolic word-referent pairs would elicit stronger prosodic modulation compared to pairs that were not. We found evidence that sound-to-meaning mappings were driven by affordances in experiment 2. However, the results from experiment 3 were largely inconclusive, and thus the status of the affordance hypothesis in the realm of prosody is still uncertain.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

Introduction 1

The protean nature of iconicity 3

Affordances 5

Affordances of the articulators 5

Affordances of word-referent pairs 6

Affordances of the multimodal communicative system  9

The present study 11

Experiments 1a and 1b 13

Participants 14

Stimuli 14

Procedure 16

Results and Discussion 17

Experiment 2 24

Participants 24

Stimuli 24

Procedure 25

Results and Discussion 25

Experiment 3 29

Participants 30

Stimuli 30

Procedure 31

Results and Discussion 32

General discussion 36

Appendix 40

References 44

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