Padraic Monaghan

What is the role of sound symbolism in language learning and language evolution?

The presence of sound-symbolism - iconic relations between a word's spoken form and its meaning - has been taken as insightful to the evolutionary origins of human communication. This account assumes, first, that sound-symbolism is prevalent in language, and second, that sound-symbolism is vitally important for language learning, because shared understandings about sound-meaning relations facilitated the first effective communicative attempts. In my talk, I critically assess each of these claims. I present a corpus analysis of English that seems to indicate that sound-symbolism is only a small component of the vocabulary, though this may vary across languages. I then present experimental studies that test the extent to which sound-symbolism provides a learning advantage for language acquisition. I show that sound-symbolism is beneficial for learning broad categories of meaning, but detrimental for learning particular meanings of words. I then show that if communicative efficiency is the selective constraint for language transmission, then arbitrariness rather than iconicity becomes the dominant property of sound-meaning relations. I discuss these results in terms of the constraints they provide for sound-symbolism as a key to language origins.

This work has been conducted in collaboration with Morten Christiansen, Stanka Fitneva, Karen Mattock, and Peter Walker.

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