Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare’s famous play, tells the tragic story of Juliet Capulet and Romeo Montague, two young lovers who fall for each other despite their feuding families. While wondering what it means to be in love with a man named Montague, Juliet tells herself:
“What’s in a name? That which we call rose
By any other name would smell as sweet”
By denying that his lover’s true being has any relation with his name, Juliet takes a stand in one of the earliest debates on language: the discussion about what is the relationship (if any) between a sound and its meaning.
Many linguists believe that one of the cornerstones of human languages is its arbitrariness: there is no apparent reason for us to use any particular sound to refer to specific objects or concepts.
As Juliet, many linguists believe that one of the cornerstones of human languages is its arbitrariness: there is no apparent reason for us to use any particular sound to refer to specific objects or concepts. In fact, if we think about words such as “pants” or “purse” and the objects they refer, we cannot find a specific reason for these objects to have exactly these names. As a consequence, other languages will have other names, such as “calças” and “bolsa”, and a rose would still smell as sweet if we called it “rosa” or “gül”.
These examples could lead us to think that language is completely arbitrary; however, some studies tell a different story.
SOUND AND MEANING
In 1929, a psychologist called Wolfgang Köhler found something interesting. He presented people with pictures of different geometrical shapes, as the ones you see below, and asked: “Which one of these pictures is called Takete and which one is called Maluma?”
Figure 1: Pictures for the Takete/Maluma Experiment
Köhler found that when these geometrical shapes were jagged, people would prefer to give them names with consonants like [p], [k] and [t], as in Takete or Kiki. When these shapes were rounded, people would prefer names like Maluma or Bouba, with consonants [m], [l] and [b]. Since then, this study has been replicated in many languages, with people from different cultures, and mostly with the same results.
Language is not completely arbitrary, but would also rely on something called iconicity, a resemblance relationship between sound and meaning.
These findings support the idea that language is not completely arbitrary, but would also rely on something called iconicity, a resemblance relationship between sound and meaning. A specific type of iconicity would be what linguists call sound symbolism: the recurrent associations people make between phonemes and perceptual categories such as size and shape.
In the last decade, a great number of studies has shed light on what we know about this phenomenon. Through experimental work, research has identified several mappings between sound and perceptual categories. Now we know that vowels [a] and [o] are perceived as referring to larger and heavier objects, [u] tends to be associated with round and dark referents, while [i] is associated with objects that are spiky, more luminous, lighter and faster.
Some scientists also claim that these sound symbolisms have an influence in the names we create. Anthropologist Brent Berlin alleges that bird names used by different South American indigenous people show signs of sound symbolism, as these names reflect these bird’s physical properties. This would explain why names for the tinamous (a bird with a more rounded shape, figure (2b)) usually have more nasals, a sound usually associated with roundness and fatness, while birds like the rail, with a more angular shape (figure (2a)), receive names with consonants [t] and [k].
Figure 2: Wood rail (a) and Great Tinamow (b)
All these findings have led some linguists to state that arbitrariness and iconicity are not mutually exclusive, but act as two complementary traits. The advantage of arbitrariness is providing speakers with an unlimited expressive capacity, since an arbitrary mapping between sound and meaning would not limit the language system to our senses. As for the role of sound symbolism in language, one of its potential advantages lays on the process of acquiring our first language.
SOUND SYMBOLISM AND LANGUAGE ACQUISITION
We use [sound symbolism] to map categories we perceive — such as size, shape and luminosity — with sounds other people produce.
Imagine you are a baby living in a world full of objects and senses, and full of noise people make to talk about them. It would be easier to learn new names if you came to this world with a cheat sheet listing the mappings between the sounds we use and the objects in the world. Some researchers suggest that sound symbolism is this cheat sheet.
According to these scientists, we use this cheat sheet to map catagories we perceive — such as size, shape and luminosity — with sounds other people produce. This mapping would be crucial for babies to realize that there are categories in the world and that these categories receive names. Only later babies would realize this sound/category mapping can often be arbitrary.
This hypothesis is known as the Sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis, and more research is needed before we can claim its trueness. Nevertheless, there are some favorable evidence: some data indicates that children produce more iconic words than adults, that adults are more iconic when they speak to children, and that sound symbolism helps children learn new verbs despite their native language.
Even if we could say for sure that sound symbolism plays a critical role in driving language acquisition, we would still be left with many open questions. Why do people associate [t] and [k], and not other sounds, with jagged shapes? Why do [a] and [o] tend to be associated with large and heavy objects, but not [i] or [e]? Is there a relation between sound symbolism and synesthesia?
If you want to know more about sound symbolism, we suggest reading “Iconicity in the lab” and “The sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis”. These papers were the source for this text and they deal with the studies we mentioned here in more detail.
IMAI, Mutsumi; KITA, Sotaro. The sound symbolism bootstrapping hypothesis for language acquisition and language evolution. In: Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, v. 369, p. 1-13, set. 2014.
LOCKWOOD, Gwilym; DINGEMANSE, Mark. Iconicity in the lab: a review of behavioral, developmental, and neuroimaging research into sound-symbolism. In: Frontiers in Psychology, v. 6:1246, 2015.