Articulatory features of phonemes pattern to iconic meanings

Association between [+airflow] and [+animal vocal], [+appearance], [+wind] in 13 languages

One of the best things of my postdoc at HKU has been the collaboration with Youngah Do and Arthur Lewis Thompson. At the end of 2021 our first paper was published: “Articulatory features of phonemes pattern to iconic meanings: Evidence from cross-linguistic ideophones”.

I will give the abstract first, and then give you a few different options to engage with it. Think of it as your own RPG game!


Iconic words are supposed to exhibit imitative relationships between their linguistic forms and their referents. Many studies have worked to pinpoint sound-to-meaning correspondences for ideophones from different languages. The correspondence patterns show similarities across languages, but what makes such language-specific correspondences universal, as iconicity claims to be, remains unclear. This could be due to a lack of consensus on how to describe and test the perceptuo-motor affordances that make an iconic word feel imitative to speakers.

We created and analysed a database of 1,860 ideophones across 13 languages, and found that seven articulatory features, physiologically accessible to all spoken language users, pattern according to semantic features of ideophones. Our findings pave the way for future research to utilize articulatory properties as a means to test and explain how iconicity is encoded in spoken language. The perspective taken here fits in with ongoing research of embodiment, motivation, and iconicity research, three major strands of research within Cognitive Linguistics. The results support that there is a degree of unity between the concepts of imitative communication and the spoken forms through cross-domain mappings, which involve physical articulatory movement.

I want to read the paper:

Because it was the Editor’s choice for the issue of Cognitive Linguistics it was published in, the paper has been made open access, free of charge for us and of course, free of charge for readers.

Click here to read the paper.

I want to watch a video instead:

For the 10th installment of the monthly iconicity seminar, creatively entitled IcoSem (hosted by Ian Joo) I presented the main points of our paper. Watch the video here.

Thanks everybody who was at the talk and especially for everyone that engaged in the Q&A session!

I want to look at the data:

Sure enough, here’s the OSF directory with the data.

I just want to cite you guys:

We’ve got you covered for that as well:

Thompson, Arthur Lewis, Thomas Van Hoey & Youngah Do. 2021. Articulatory features of phonemes pattern to iconic meanings: Evidence from cross-linguistic ideophones. Cognitive Linguistics 32(4). 563–608.

Postdoctoral assistant (Linguistics)

My research interests include ideophones, (Premodern) Chinese, historical linguistics, Cognitive Linguistics, and lexical semantics.

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