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Beep, click, sizzle! How does the brain process onomatopoeia?

The word TREE does not look like an actual tree, nor does it sound like one. Indeed many words in Germanic languages like English and Dutch possess a largely arbitrary link between their form and their meaning. Onomatopoeic words like beep, click, and sizzle are notable exceptions: they sound like what they mean. A recent study by David Peeters investigated how the human brain processes such onomatopoeic words when hearing them.
Beep, click, sizzle! How does the brain process onomatopoeia?

In a simple experimental paradigm, participants listened to a large set of words that contained both onomatopoeic words (such as beep, click, slurp, and sizzle) and words with a largely arbitrary link between form and meaning (such as stare, throw, lift, and injure). Throughout the experiment, participants' brain activity was continuously recorded via a set of electrodes placed in a cap on their heads. As indicated by N400 amplitude difference between the two sets of words, the intuitive, iconic link between form and meaning in case of onomatopoeic words led to processing benefits compared to words with an arbitrary form-meaning mapping. In line with previous fMRI findings, this processing advantage might be due to activation of both lexical and environmental sound memory representations in the case of onomatopoeia.  

These findings are consistent with the view that the neuronal architecture supporting language comprehension is not an encapsulated entity but interacts with the neuronal infrastructure engaged in auditory perception more broadly.

More information

  • Publication: Peeters, D. (2016). Processing consequences of onomatopoeic iconicity in spoken language comprehension. In A. Papafragou, D. Grodner, D. Mirman, & J. Trueswell (Eds.), Proceedings of the 38th Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society (CogSci 2016) (pp. 1632-1647). Austin, TX: Cognitive Science Society.
Neurobiology of Language

What is the neurobiological infrastructure for the uniquely human capacity for language? The focus of the Neurobiology of Language Department is on the study of language production, language comprehension, and language acquisition from a cognitive neuroscience perspective. Read more...

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