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Non-arbitrary relationships between sensory meanings and phonological properties of English words

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Poster B20 in Poster Session B, Tuesday, October 24, 3:30 - 5:15 pm CEST, Espace Vieux-Port

Greig de Zubicaray1, Elaine Kearney1, Frank Guenther2, Katie McMahon1, Joanne Arciuli3; 1Queensland University of Technology, 2Boston University, 3Flinders University

A fundamental question for the neurobiology of language is how the brain attains word meaning. Grounded or embodied accounts assume that concepts are derived from experiences originating from various modality-specific sensory and motor systems. To support this proposal, many neuroimaging studies have employed subjective ratings of words’ sensory meanings as regressors and concluded that corresponding activity elicited in sensorimotor cortex during word recognition tasks reflects representation of experiential information. These studies have also assumed that the relationship between a word’s meaning and its phonological form is entirely arbitrary. However, across spoken languages, there are some words whose acoustic features resemble the meanings of their referents by evoking sensory imagery, i.e., they are iconic (e.g., in English, “splash” imitates the sound of an object hitting water). While these symbolic form-meaning relationships are well-studied, relatively little work has explored whether the sensory properties of English words also involve systematic (i.e., statistical) form-meaning mappings that might influence their processing. We show that surface form properties are able to predict a significant proportion of variance in sensory experience ratings (SERs) of a large set of English monosyllabic and disyllabic words (N = 4414). Next, we show that iconicity and form typicality, a statistical measure of how well a word’s form aligns with its sensory experience rating, are only weakly related to each other, indicating they are likely to be distinct constructs. To determine whether form typicality influences processing of sensory words, we conducted regression analyses with performance on lexical decision, word recognition, naming and semantic (concrete/abstract) decision tasks from behavioural megastudy datasets. Across all datasets, form typicality was a stronger predictor of performance than SERs. Our results provide the first evidence that non-arbitrary statistical regularities in the mapping of phonological form to sensory meaning significantly influences word processing. These findings challenge the notion that sensorimotor activity elicited during word recognition reflects representation of experiential information.

Topic Areas: Meaning: Lexical Semantics, Phonology

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