This investigation examined whether speakers produce reliable prosodic correlates to meaning across semantic domains and whether listeners use these cues to derive word meaning from novel words. Speakers were asked to produce phrases in infant‐directed speech in which novel words were used to convey one of two meanings from a set of antonym pairs (e.g., big/small). Acoustic analyses revealed that some acoustic features were correlated with overall valence of the meaning. However, each word meaning also displayed a unique acoustic signature, (...) and semantically related meanings elicited similar acoustic profiles. In two perceptual tests, listeners either attempted to identify the novel words with a matching meaning dimension (picture pair) or with mismatched meaning dimensions. Listeners inferred the meaning of the novel words significantly more often when prosody matched the word meaning choices than when prosody mismatched. These findings suggest that speech contains reliable prosodic markers to word meaning and that listeners use these prosodic cues to differentiate meanings. That prosody is semantic suggests a reconceptualization of traditional distinctions between linguistic and nonlinguistic properties of spoken language. (shrink)
Sound symbolism refers to non‐arbitrary mappings between the sounds of words and their meanings and is often studied by pairing auditory pseudowords such as “maluma” and “takete” with rounded and pointed visual shapes, respectively. However, it is unclear what auditory properties of pseudowords contribute to their perception as rounded or pointed. Here, we compared perceptual ratings of the roundedness/pointedness of large sets of pseudowords and shapes to their acoustic and visual properties using a novel application of representational similarity analysis (RSA). (...) Representational dissimilarity matrices (RDMs) of the auditory and visual ratings of roundedness/pointedness were significantly correlated crossmodally. The auditory perceptual RDM correlated significantly with RDMs of spectral tilt, the temporal fast Fourier transform (FFT), and the speech envelope. Conventional correlational analyses showed that ratings of pseudowords transitioned from rounded to pointed as vocal roughness (as measured by the harmonics‐to‐noise ratio, pulse number, fraction of unvoiced frames, mean autocorrelation, shimmer, and jitter) increased. The visual perceptual RDM correlated significantly with RDMs of global indices of visual shape (the simple matching coefficient, image silhouette, image outlines, and Jaccard distance). Crossmodally, the RDMs of the auditory spectral parameters correlated weakly but significantly with those of the global indices of visual shape. Our work establishes the utility of RSA for analysis of large stimulus sets and offers novel insights into the stimulus parameters underlying sound symbolism, showing that sound‐to‐shape mapping is driven by acoustic properties of pseudowords and suggesting audiovisual cross‐modal correspondence as a basis for language users' sensitivity to this type of sound symbolism. (shrink)
Although language has long been regarded as a primarily arbitrary system, sound symbolism, or non-arbitrary correspondences between the sound of a word and its meaning, also exists in natural language. Previous research suggests that listeners are sensitive to sound symbolism. However, little is known about the specificity of these mappings. This study investigated whether sound symbolic properties correspond to specific meanings, or whether these properties generalize across semantic dimensions. In three experiments, native English-speaking adults heard sound symbolic foreign words for (...) dimensional adjective pairs and for each foreign word, selected a translation among English antonyms that either matched or mismatched with the correct meaning dimension. Listeners agreed more reliably on the English translation for matched relative to mismatched dimensions, though reliable cross-dimensional mappings did occur. These findings suggest that although sound symbolic properties generalize to meanings that may share overlapping semantic features, sound symbolic mappings offer semantic specificity. (shrink)
The proposal that language has evolved to conform to general cognitive and learning constraints inherent in the human brain calls for specification of these mechanisms. We propose that just as cognition appears to be grounded in cross-modal perceptual-motor capabilities, so too must language. Evidence for perceptual-motor grounding comes from non-arbitrary sound-to-meaning correspondences and their role in word learning.
The current study assessed the extent to which the use of referential prosody varies with communicative demand. Speaker–listener dyads completed a referential communication task during which speakers attempted to indicate one of two color swatches (one bright, one dark) to listeners. Speakers' bright sentences were reliably higher pitched than dark sentences for ambiguous (e.g., bright red versus dark red) but not unambiguous (e.g., bright red versus dark purple) trials, suggesting that speakers produced meaningful acoustic cues to brightness when the accompanying (...) linguistic content was underspecified (e.g., “Can you get the red one?”). Listening partners reliably chose the correct corresponding swatch for ambiguous trials when lexical information was insufficient to identify the target, suggesting that listeners recruited prosody to resolve lexical ambiguity. Prosody can thus be conceptualized as a type of vocal gesture that can be recruited to resolve referential ambiguity when there is communicative demand to do so. (shrink)