Experimental methods in phonosemantics: preliminary testing of the antonymic hypothesis as a way of mediating between the arbitrary nature of linguistic representation and aspects of iconism

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The question of whether or not linguistic sounds might convey inherent meaning has never conclusively been resolved. This is an empirical study weighing evidence for and against the existence of phonosemantics, also known as sound symbolism or iconism. Contrary to well established principles such as the arbitrary nature of the sign and the double articulation, the phonosemantic hypothesis proposes that the sounds which compose a given word correlate with aspects of the meaning of that word by virtue of their articulatory features. 116 individuals of 19--73 years of age from both sexes were interviewed to determine their intuitions regarding potential meanings of linguistic sounds. The experiment consisted of three distinct parts. First, participants were asked to define nonsense words with their only cueing being the sound segments of the nonsense word. Second, for a given definition, participants were asked to create an appropriate-sounding nonsense word, uninfluenced by any real words. Finally, for a given image, participants were asked to create an appropriate-sounding nonsense word, uninfluenced by any real words. Participants' responses from the first part were analyzed for semantic patterns, while responses from the second and third parts were analyzed for phonic patterns. Data was interpreted according to the antonymic hypothesis, which states that iconism is most readily observable in articulations that can be set in antonymic contrast to other articulations. This includes points of articulation from the extremities of the vocal apparatus such as front, back, high, and low and manners of articulation such as stops and continuants. The data gathered presents little evidence in support of phonosemantics; hence, by default, the opposite case is made in support of arbitrary designative processes. However, it was determined that certain experimental procedures could be altered during future endeavors, perhaps leading to different results. This alteration primarily involves ways to better control extra-stimulus motivation (interference from real words) which was judged as the most crucial variable of the experimental process.

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Language, Linguistics