Iconic words are known to exhibit an imitative relationship between a word and its referent. Many studies have worked to pinpoint sound-to-meaning correspondences for ideophones from different languages. The correspondence patterns show similarities across languages, but what makes such language-specific correspondences universal, as iconicity claims to be, remains unclear. This could be due to a lack of consensus on how to describe and test the perceptuo-motor affordances that make an iconic word feel imitative to speakers. We created and analyzed a database of 1,888 ideophones across 13 languages, and found that 5 articulatory properties, physiologically accessible to all spoken language users, pattern according to semantic features of ideophones. Our findings pave the way for future research to utilize articulatory properties as a means to test and explain how iconicity is encoded in spoken language.
Chinese Ideophone Database (CHIDEOD) is an open-source dataset coded in a user-friendly format, which collects 3453 unique onomatopoeia and ideophones (mimetics) of Mandarin Chinese, as well as Middle Chinese and Old Chinese (based on Baxter & Sagart 2014). These are analyzed according to a wide range of linguistic features, including phonological, semantic, as well as orthographic ones. CHIDEOD was created on the basis of data collection and analysis conducted by Arthur Thompson in our lab in collaboration with Thomas Van Hoey (then in National Taiwan University). For individual sources and files relevant to the database, please visit https://osf.io/kpwgf/
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. Published here.
Studies on English and Spanish use ratings to identify words speakers consider iconic. Our study replicates this for Japanese but, owing to additional variables, yields more nuanced findings. We propose that ratings reflect a word’s relationship to sensory information rather than iconicity.
In this project, we explore how people interpret imitative quotatives “and then he was like…” in several conditions.
Ideophones are marked words that depict sensory imagery and occur in many languages. It has been found that these words are easier to learn which might be due to their depictive properties. In this project we investigate whether visual cues such as lip rounding and mouth opening help in learning ideophones.
Some languages have more forms of conventional spoken iconicity than others. Japanese, for example, has more ideophones than English. So how do speakers of a language with limited semantic categories of ideophones depict percepts? One possibility is demonstrations: unconventional, yet depictive, discourse. Demonstrations follow quotatives (e.g., I was like ___) and perform referents as opposed to describing them. In English, a language with arguably restricted sets of ideophones, speakers may enact/create demonstrations using their hands, voice, and body. This paper examines which visual and spoken components are vital to comprehending demonstrations in English with features from Güldemann’s (2008) observations: enacted verbal behaviour, non-linguistic vocal imitation, ideophones, and representational gesture. 28 videos containing demonstrations of 11 celebrities engaging in impromptu storytelling on USA talk shows were our critical stimuli. 145 native speakers completed forced multiple-choice judgement tasks to qualify each demonstration. To see which forms of visual and spoken communication contributed to comprehension, videos were presented in visual (muted), audio (pixelated and darkened), and audio–visual (left as is) conditions. Our results show that if arbitrary speech (e.g., I was like I can’t go over the ocean!) is in a demonstration, then it is vital to comprehension. The visual condition rendered these demonstrations uninterpretable. If sound imitations (e.g., I was like prfff!) or ideophones coupled with hand gesture (e.g., I was like yay! + hands opening and closing in unison) are in a demonstration, then the interpretability of that demonstration across our experimental conditions depends on whether its components (gesture, sound imitation) can unambiguously express meaning in isolation. These findings allow us to make several conjectures about the wellformedness of demonstrations. Our findings are in line with studies on enactments in deaf signed languages whereby the more unconventional a form of iconic depiction is, the more it requires conventional framing to be interpretable.