Arbitrary symbolism in natural language revisited: When word forms carry meaning

Jamie Reilly, Chris Westbury, Jacob Kean, Jonathan E. Peelle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

34 Scopus citations


Cognitive science has a rich history of interest in the ways that languages represent abstract and concrete concepts (e.g., idea vs. dog). Until recently, this focus has centered largely on aspects of word meaning and semantic representation. However, recent corpora analyses have demonstrated that abstract and concrete words are also marked by phonological, orthographic, and morphological differences. These regularities in sound-meaning correspondence potentially allow listeners to infer certain aspects of semantics directly from word form. We investigated this relationship between form and meaning in a series of four experiments. In Experiments 1-2 we examined the role of metalinguistic knowledge in semantic decision by asking participants to make semantic judgments for aurally presented nonwords selectively varied by specific acoustic and phonetic parameters. Participants consistently associated increased word length and diminished wordlikeness with abstract concepts. In Experiment 3, participants completed a semantic decision task (i.e., abstract or concrete) for real words varied by length and concreteness. Participants were more likely to misclassify longer, inflected words (e.g., "apartment") as abstract and shorter uninflected abstract words (e.g., "fate") as concrete. In Experiment 4, we used a multiple regression to predict trial level naming data from a large corpus of nouns which revealed significant interaction effects between concreteness and word form. Together these results provide converging evidence for the hypothesis that listeners map sound to meaning through a non-arbitrary process using prior knowledge about statistical regularities in the surface forms of words.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere42286
JournalPloS one
Issue number8
StatePublished - Aug 6 2012


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