Do more sounds like they mean or are they arbitrary?
Lynn Perry, assistant professor in the department of psychology at the University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, delves into this debate with her current research.
Research Interests: A question motivating much of my research is What do words do? In particular, I’m interested in the extent to which verbal labels causally impact cognitive processes over developmental and immediate timescales. In answering this question, I use a variety of methods, including behavioral studies with children between 1 and 12 years of age, and non-invasive brain stimulation techniques with adults.
Current Research: Iconicity in language development
Why do some words sound like what they mean? We recently found that children learning English and Spanish tend to acquire words high in iconicity, or correspondence between form and meaning, earlier than words low in iconicity. Ongoing research projects are exploring the role of iconicity in language development and in language evolution.
Why do we call a dog a dog and not a cat? Are words iconic; that is do they sound like what they mean? Or are they arbitrary? Linguists are trained that the vast majority of words are in fact arbitrary—that outside of special cases of onomatopoeia (words like “bang” and “moo”) there is no relationship between what a word sounds like and what it means.
This principle of the “arbitrariness of the sign” has been fundamental to modern linguistics and psychology. Our recent research topples this long-held axiom, showing that the words of spoken languages are, in fact, iconic in some very interesting ways.
In a series of five experiments, we asked native speakers of English and of Spanish to judge the iconicity of about 600 words from their respective language. Overall, participants rated the words as somewhat iconic on average, an interesting finding – but it was the systematic patterns of their ratings that we found to be most compelling. For example, in both languages, words from grammatical categories like adjectives (descriptor words, like “sticky”) were judged to be higher in iconicity than nouns (words for people, places, and things, like “sandwich”). Most interesting of all, in both languages we found that the words judged as highest in iconicity were learned the earliest by young children. This pattern suggests that the iconicity in English and Spanish words plays an important function in helping young children to learn language.
Our study is the first to show that iconicity is prevalent across the vocabulary of a spoken language, suggesting that this iconicity may play an important role in word learning. It is the nail in the coffin for the theory that languages are essentially arbitrary. Languages are not just arbitrary, but also iconic in some fundamental and consequential ways.