Neurobiology of Language -
Talking Sense: the behavioural and neural correlates of sound symbolism
Sound symbolism is when there’s a mapping between the sound of a word and what that word actually means. The opposite of this is arbitrariness, where there’s no link between sound and meaning at all. For example, the word dog is arbitrary; the sound [d] doesn’t mean having four legs, [o] doesn’t suggest being a pet, and [g] doesn’t suggest a preference for rolling in muddy puddles.
In European languages, sound symbolism is mostly limited to onomatopoeia, like sound effects or animal noises, which means that people often don’t consider onomatopoeia to be real language. However, once we start looking at languages outside Europe, it turns out that a lot of languages have classes of words called ideophones. These words use the sounds of language in a vivid way to show what the word means, and even people who don’t speak that language are sensitive to their meanings. Not only can people with no knowledge of Japanese accurately guess the meanings of Japanese ideophones, they can also use these correspondences to help word learning.
Gwilym’s thesis features several experiments which explore how sound symbolism works and how it affects sentence processing and word learning. You can read his research here.
Gwilym was born in the UK and grew up as a monolingual English speaker, which he spent the rest of his academic career trying to compensate for. He studied Japanese and linguistics at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, and then language sciences with a specialisation in neuroscience and linguistics (that’s not a description, that’s the actual title) at University College, London. His PhD research was funded by an International Max Planck Research School for Language Sciences Fellowship from the Max Planck Society. He now turns numbers into pictures for various organisations as a data visualisation consultant in London.