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How To Learn Sign Language

Do Sounds Carry Their Own Meanings? Onomatopoeia and Arbitrariness of the Sign

So let’s talk about matching. Sometimes,
when we look at the world around us, it’s really easy to tell what things go together.
But when it comes to working out which sounds go with which meanings, a lot of the time,
it’s not so straightforward. If you go in thinking there’s some natural order that gives
your words their inherent wordiness, you’re going to have a hard time. I’m Moti Lieberman,
and this is the Ling Space. Words in our languages can really feel like
there’s something just naturally that-thing about them. Like, take a word like “horse”.
To an English speaker, that set of sounds just obviously goes with that four-legged,
long-faced, maned mammal. What else could it be? But in other languages, the word for
“horse” can sound totally different – it’s 馬 [ɯma] in Japanese, kabayo in Tagalog, pferd
in German, סוס [sus] in Hebrew, and more. These don’t really sound alike at all, and you could
find similar lists for most words if you look across languages. It’s not like this is a revolutionary idea –
over a hundred years ago, the linguist Ferdinand de Saussure was already wondering
about what this meant for how language works. He realized that there wasn’t something fundamental
about anything that ties sound and meaning together, an idea which he termed the “arbitrariness
of the linguistic sign”. By this, he meant that a language could pick potentially any
combination of sounds to point out any object or idea in the world. Horses don’t have to
be called horses. This idea lies at the heart of our modern
conception of words. We can’t just tap into some collective vocabulary unconscious; we
have to learn each and every thing in every language we pick up. It’s a large part of
why we assume that kids have such a challenge in front of them when it comes to language
acquisition, as we’ve talked about before. And this applies to nearly all concepts in
language! Pretty much everything you can think of in the world has no deep-rooted connection between
what it is and the words we use to describe it. One exception to this is onomatopoeia, or
words that imitate the sounds they’re associated with. So English speakers decided a long time
ago that when you hear a bee fly by your ear, and it makes that [bzzzz] sound, that’s a
buzz. The word is pretty much the same as the noise coming from the insect. It’s not
arbitrary – there’s a clear link between the two. Except… how true is this, really? If we
look across different languages, we can often find things that sound really different showing
up as onomatopoeia for the same thing. Like, take our horse from before, and picture it
prancing down a nice cobblestone street. What sound does it make? Well, in English, it goes
clip-clop. But in Turkish, the same horse running would go digidik-digidik, or in Punjabi it would
go tun-tuk, or in Japanese, paka-paka. In each case, you can imagine how the sound
got turned into the onomatopoeic word, but the results aren’t close to being the same.
And you can find this for lots of similar onomatopoeic activities – roosters crowing,
people sneezing, dogs barking, and so forth. But even if there are differences, we still
have this intuition that underneath, these aren’t quite as arbitrary as calling a horse
a horse instead of an uma. And we can show that through psycholinguistic experiments.
A 2016 study dug into this, using Japanese ideophones, or onomatopoeic words. See, Japanese
has this whole class of these ideophones that get used to express not just things like quacking
or laughing, but lots of other adjectives and adverbs, too. And they usually come in the form of two pairs of two
syllables each. Like, excited is わくわく [wakɯwakɯ], or exhausted is へとへと [hetoheto]. There are a
ton of these pairs, but they should be less immediately associated with the concepts underneath
them, right? I mean, there’s nothing particularly fluffy about a word like ふわふわ [ɸɯwaɸɯwa]. A fluffy
horse doesn’t go ふわふわ as it fluffs on by. To check into this, the researchers
in the study took 38 of these words, and gave them to native Dutch speakers, who didn’t
know any Japanese. The participants got shown pairings of each Japanese word with a Dutch
translation twice. But not all of them had the right Dutch word: half of them got matched with
the correct translation, and half of them with the opposite translation.
So, like, ぼろぼろ [boɾoboɾo] for worn out would get the Dutch “worn out” versleten, but
うきうき [ɯkiɯki] for happy would get paired with verdrietig, or “sad”. After that, the participants were shown another
set of word pairs: one of the Japanese words with either the Dutch translation they’d already
seen, or with some other random Dutch word. They were asked to hit a button as quickly
as they could to show whether this pairing was one they’d seen already. And even after
only having two exposures, something really cool already turns up: it was a lot easier
for the Dutch participants to remember a pairing if the translation was correct in the first
place. So they memorized the pairs where both the Japanese and the Dutch meant the same thing
86.1% of the time, versus only 71.1% for the ones where the words had opposite meanings. And that wasn’t the end of their evidence.
The researchers also included a follow-up part, where they confessed to the participants
that they’d been devious, and that half the Japanese words they’d learned were actually
the opposite of the Dutch words. But they didn’t tell them which half. Instead, participants
were given all the Japanese words, and this time, they had to choose between two opposites
for the Dutch translation. One opposite was always the Dutch word that they’d
originally seen, and the other was something new: so, like, if they got the word for energetic,
きびきび [kibikibi], they’d have to choose between the Dutch words for energetic vs. tired. If
they were just picking randomly, knowing that half of the translations they’d learned
before were wrong, their success rate should be at chance, or about 50%. But here, even after
being told to disregard everything they’d heard, participants still picked right 72.3%
of the time. But maybe this is just something about Japanese
and Dutch – maybe the word matching between the languages is better than we’d think.
But ah, those careful researchers. They also ran a study where participants went through
the exact same steps, except with regular Japanese adjectives. You know, the kind that
are supposed to be totally arbitrary, with no deep connections between the sounds, like
高い [takai] being tall or 安い [yasɯi] being cheap. And with these words, there was less
of an effect. They didn’t remember the real vs. opposite words any better, and while they
were still above chance for the guessing between two opposites part, their performance wasn’t
as high as with the ideophones. So it looks like there’s some meaning gain
to the ideophones themselves – there really is something fluffy about ふわふわ. And
it’s not just here where this looks like it can be helpful – it may also ease word learning
in kids, as we’ll talk about back on our website. But why should this be the case? Well, the
power of these words probably stems at least partly from the sounds themselves, which seem
to come with certain associations. You probably don’t think of [k] or [f] as having anything particular
meaning associated with them. They’re just sounds. But let’s try something that’s a bit more
intuitive, based on an experiment first done in 1929. Take a minute and look at these two
shapes. All right? Now, if I told you that one of them is a molmo and the other
is an ikitik, which would you think is which? The vast majority of people will associate
the blobby shape with lower, rounder vowels like [ɑ] or [o], and voiced labial consonants
like [m] or [b], and smooth liquid [l]s. The sharp, pointy shape will probably get voiceless
stops like [k] or [t], high vowels like [i] and [ɪ], and other sharp, pointy sounds. And
this effect has been shown in languages from English to Spanish to Tamil! This suggests
that there might be a deeper association between sounds and shapes, which has led some people
to believe that the words we associate with concepts are somewhat less than random, and that may
connect into the differences in learning ideophones. And it also explains why so much effort goes
into picking out new product names. When a new brand or product is getting ready to go
on the market, a really important part of the process is coming up with a good name.
You want people to get the right idea about your product right off the bat. A really solid name can be so potent and so
effective that it changes the way people see the world. Like, if you think of brands like
Google or Kleenex, they’ve affected everyday speech for many English speakers,
so that you can “google something” when using another search engine, and call nearly
anything you can blow your nose with a “kleenex”. But how do products get named? Obviously,
it can’t be anything goofy or rude in your target language, but there’s more to it
than that. Pros of marketing and advertising have got crafting the reality that surrounds
their product and how people perceive it down to a science. And linguistics is a big part
of that. Big marketing companies often hire linguists whose main role is to work out what
kinds of ideas, emotions, and impressions different possible brand names drum up. Like, after doing studies with people in different
parts of the world, researchers found that some consonants give an impression of energy
and vigor, like [k], [v], and [p]. So an imaginary medication with a name like, say, Vivipec
is probably marketed to recover your spirit and vim, or a car called the Cortiva might
sound like it’s sleek and sprightly, but light on the bankbook. So even if most words in language really are
arbitrary, there may be more to pairing sounds to meanings than first meets the eye. Onomatopoeia
may nudge people towards understanding words in surprising ways, even if the words themselves
don’t immediately seem to be connected to sound effects. And even sounds themselves
might resonate with you in a certain way. Sometimes, the way a word sounds might just
lead you to a perfect match. So we’ve reached the end of the Ling Space
for this week. If you found my consonants energetic, you learned that most words in
language have no deep connection between their sound and meaning; that it can be easier to
pick up words that do have connections to their sounds; and that even individual sounds
have visual or emotional associations that can carry across languages. The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman.
It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost, and it’s written by both of us. Our editor
is Georges Coulombe, our production assistant is Stephan Hurtubise, our music is by Shane
Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE. We’re down in the comments below, or you
can bring the discussion back over to our website, where we have some extra material
on this topic. Also, try dropping by our store, where we have our new Super Schwa shirt, and
this shirt, and a bunch of other linguistics stuff! Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and
Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe.
And we’ll see you next Wednesday. Ma te wa!

24 Replies to “Do Sounds Carry Their Own Meanings? Onomatopoeia and Arbitrariness of the Sign”

  • Well, the Dutch were the only nation that was allowed to trade with the Japanese for a very long time. Probably unrelated.

  • Very interesting episode !

    This reminds me of a study in France about how attractive our names sound to people of the other sex.

    According to this study, French boys tend to think girls whose name ends with the [i] sound like Julie, Mélanie are friendly, and when you say their name with [i] sound you're actually smiling.
    But they were still more attracted to girl whose name ends with the sound [a], like Mélissa or Sarah.
    And the study also revealed, French girls tends to be more attracted by boys that have short names like Théo, Hugo or Alex.
    I have no idea how reliable is this study though.

    But my name ends with an -i, and my mom said she chose this name 'cause she liked the idea of people smiling when talking to me ^^

  • would you do an update of this if the Dutch-japanese study is replicated with other languages, this really blew me away!

  • Is it true that signed languages tend to be more onomatopoeic than spoken languages? If so, does this have any interesting implications?


  • Can we talk about how the dutch people got the non-onomatopoeic adjectives correct at a rate above chance? What the fuck?

  • Sorry for what I'm about to write is totally unrelated to this video, but I just wanted to share something that I found out this week.

    You spoke on the video a little about sign languages which are not spoken languages, but I just heard about another type of non-spoken languages which are Whistled Languages. Have you ever heard about that before ?

    We have one of them in South of France. It is taught in primary schools, middle schools and even universities.
    They have their own vowels and they're able to make words and sentences (I really don't know how that work though).
    The syntax and vocabulary is the same as the dialect spoken there.
    It was born out of necessity by shepherds who need to communicate between themselves in the mountains. Whistling is more powerful than shouting, it can be heard at a distance of 2.5 km.
    And on the documentary I watched on TV, you could see how people have incorporated in their daily life, like on rugby fields to give instructions to their team members, or to call their children in for dinner time…

    I found it totally fascinating that the need/desire to communicate overcomes the obstacles to create new ways of communicating. Are you gonna make a video about non-spoken languages ?

    (sorry again for the digression)

  • The various words for clip-clopping all have a prominent plosive, though. Is that the kind of thing one could look for?

  • I have also noted that many animals are not said to sound the same in different language. For example, in English, cows are said to sound like /ɔɪŋk/ but in Swedish, they sound like /nuf/ and in Russian, they sound like /xro:/.

  • Absolutely true with the ideophones. Some of the easiest words for me to learn are those just because they feel so intuitive.

  • Great episode!! Thanks a lot Ling Space 🙂 you always remind how linguistics is actually cool and that it is not just the boring stuff i am learning at the university

  • Thanks. Many teachings. One fundamental thing, kind of advise I lay down here : Before you study Japanese, you should study Korean. Look map of Northeast area. Korea is located north than Japan. That is, historically and liguistically Koeran language is antecedent to Japanese. So you have to study Korean phonetics and how to make it sound etc…. For example, Japanese liguistic researchers cannot translate their old Japanese, but Korean easily understand and figure it out within soon contemplations. Because those sentences and words are from Korean dialects. Historically you first study. So Korean easily learn Japanese if he desides ti study it. Lingustic researchers on the globe tend tobe some ignorant on this lingusitc viewpoint. In a word, your sincere study…. you spent much time. For more to know, let me know or study Korean history and language, than out of date, unmature language. You ask intellectuals around you about how Korean has been scientic of whole languages. Most of westerners, you easily sample Japanese as a language study case, just only due to Japan is a developed country in Asia. But Korea is also that. But it's WRONG! You should adapt Korean, so full of sound expressions, onomatopoeia. Bye.

  • Japanese language is kind of a stem, or indigenized dialect of Korean language, Hangul. Exactly speaking historically, from the Baekjae Dynasty, Korean dialects they began to use as their language.

  • STR is a String of consonants that Stretches the word out .It gives a connotation of long and narrow: street stream string strand stripe strip strap strop strait stretch streak.You project when you do the SP sound Spit speak spout spew .

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