Monday, June 22, 2009

Uncovering secrets of sound symbolism

Does the Japanese word "akurai" (ah-cure-eye) mean bright? Or does it mean catch?

When native English speakers who are unfamiliar with Japanese are taught the correct meaning – bright – they learn and remember the translation more easily than people who are taught a randomly chosen meaning, an Emory study has found. The study results, which included 21 Japanese words, were published recently by the journal Cognition.

"Our research provides one of the first demonstrations that learners can use sound symbolism to derive meaning during spoken language processing," said Lynne Nygaard, associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study.

"These results are part of the accumulating evidence challenging the arbitrariness of language," added Laura Namy, co-author of the study.

For years, Nygaard has explored the relationship between the way something is said and the meaning of words. Namy’s work has focused on how children learn language. The two scientists have combined their expertise to help pioneer the field of sound symbolism and language — an emerging domain in psychology.

While onomatopoeia is well known, new research is showing that a subtle class of sound symbolism may be more pervasive in language, extending across languages and cultures.

“Sound symbolism seems to be a basic property of how our brains map sound to meaning,” Nygaard says, noting that she and Namy have studied sound-symbolism traits in 14 different languages.

Their latest Emory study used a list of words recorded by a native speaker of Japanese. Groups of monolingual English speakers were either taught the correct meanings for the words, their antonyms, or randomly chosen meanings while listening to the recording.

When tested, those who learned the correct meaning responded faster, and had more accurate recall, than learners in the other two groups.

“People appear to be actively recruiting sound symbolism to understand and to learn language,” Namy says.

Emory, a leader in the field of grounded cognition, is one of a handful of universities that is exploring in depth the psychological and neurological aspects of sound symbolism in language. Nygaard and Namy are now beginning studies that use functional magnetic resonance imaging to track neural responses to the sounds of words.

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