Sound Symbolism

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  • One of the traditional hallmarks of human language that distinguishes it from most other animal communication systems is its arbitrariness. The sounds of words and structure of sentences are presumed to bear an arbitrary relationship to their meaning. However, there are many examples across languages that violate the arbitrariness assumption. These nonarbitrary associations between sound and meaning have been termed sound symbolism.

    Perhaps the most salient example of sound symbolism is onomatopoeia, in which words resemble the sounds to which they refer (e.g., meow, beep). There are additional within-language conventions that reliably link particular sound sequences with particular semantic domains. For example, phonesthemes are categories of sounds that tend to appear in semantically related words, such as sn-words relating to the nose (e.g., sniff, snort, ...

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