The building blocks of sound symbolism

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (compilation)


Languages contain thousands of words each and are made up by a seemingly endless collection of sound combinations. Yet a subsection of these show clear signs of corresponding word shapes for the same meanings which is generally known as vocal iconicity and sound symbolism. This dissertation explores the boundaries of sound symbolism in the lexicon from typological, functional and evolutionary perspectives in an attempt to provide a deeper understanding of the role sound symbolism plays in human language. In order to achieve this, the subject in question was triangulated by investigating different methodologies which included lexical data from a large number of language families, experiment participants and robust statistical tests.
Study I investigates basic vocabulary items in a large number of language families in order to establish the extent of sound symbolic items in the core of the lexicon, as well as how the sound-meaning associations are mapped and interconnected. This study shows that by expanding the lexical dataset compared to previous studies and completely controlling for genetic bias, a larger number of sound-meaning associations can be established. In addition, by placing focus on the phonetic and semantic features of sounds and meanings, two new types of sounds symbolism could be established, along with 20 semantically and phonetically superordinate concepts which could be linked to the semantic development of the lexicon.
Study II explores how sound symbolic associations emerge in arbitrary words through sequential transmission over language users. This study demonstrates that transmission of signals is sufficient for iconic effects to emerge and does not require interactional communication. Furthermore, it also shows that more semantically marked meanings produce stronger effects and that iconicity in the size and shape domains seems to be dictated by similarities between the internal semantic relationships of each oppositional word pair and its respective associated sounds.
Studies III and IV use color words to investigate differences and similarities between low-level cross-modal associations and sound symbolism in lexemes. Study III explores the driving factors of cross-modal associations between colors and sounds by experimentally testing implicit preferences between several different acoustic and visual parameters. The most crucial finding was that neither specific hues nor specific vowels produced any notable effects and it is therefore possible that previously reported associations between vowels and colors are actually dependent on underlying visual and acoustic parameters.
Study IV investigates sound symbolic associations in words for colors in a large number of language families by correlating acoustically described segments with luminance and saturation values obtained from cross-linguistic color-naming data. In accordance with Study III, this study showed that luminance produced the strongest results and was primarily associated with vowels, while saturation was primarily associated with consonants. This could then be linked to cross-linguistic lexicalization order of color words.
To summarize, this dissertation shows the importance of studying the underlying parameters of sound symbolism semantically and phonetically in both language users and cross-linguistic language data. In addition, it also shows the applicability of non-arbitrary sound-meaning associations for gaining a deeper understanding of how linguistic categories have developed evolutionarily and historically.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • General Language Studies and Linguistics


  • sound symbolism, Iconicity, typology, language evolution, lexicon
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Supervisors/Assistant supervisor
Award date2020 Jun 6
Place of PublicationLund
  • Lund University (Media-Tryck)
Print ISBNs978-91-89213-02-9
Electronic ISBNs978-91-89213-03-6
Publication statusPublished - 2020
Publication categoryResearch

Bibliographic note

Defence details Date: 2020-06-06 Time: 10:00 Place: LUX C121, NB! This dissertation defense will also be conducted online. Follow on External reviewer Name: Mark Dingemanse Title: associate professor Affiliation: Radboud Universiteit ---

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