A Cross-linguistic Study of Sound Symbolism: The Images of Size

Kazuko Shinohara, Shigeto Kawahara


In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt:

Although the sound-meaning relationship is often arbitrary (Saussure 1916), cases exist in which some sounds correspond to certain meanings. Such association between sounds and meanings is known as sound symbolism, and there has been a longstanding interest in the existence and the nature of sound symbolism. This paper reports an experiment on size-related sound symbolism, which shows that certain sound symbolisms hold robustly across languages. In particular, we investigate how the images of size (small or large) are affected by three phonetic factors: the height of vowels, the backness of vowels, and voicing in obstruents. Our rating experiment of four languages—Chinese, English, Japanese, and Korean—shows that these three factors contribute to the images of size, with only a few exceptions. To explain the results, we offer phonetic grounding of these size-related sound symbolic patterns. We further raise the possibility that these phonetically grounded sound symbolic patterns are ‘embodied’ in the sense of Johnson (1987) and Lakoff and Johnson (1980, 1999). 

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.3765/bls.v36i1.3926