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  • So let’s talk about matching. Sometimes, when we look at the world around us, it's

  • really easy to tell what things go together. But when it comes to working out which sounds

  • go with which meanings, a lot of the time, it's not so straightforward. If you go in

  • thinking there's some natural order that gives your words their inherent wordiness, you're

  • going to have a hard time. I’m Moti Lieberman, and this is the Ling Space.

  • Words in our languages can really feel like there's something just naturally that-thing

  • about them. Like, take a word likehorse”. To an English speaker, that set of sounds

  • just obviously goes with that four-legged, long-faced, maned mammal. What else could it be?

  • But in other languages, the word forhorsecan sound totally differentit's

  • 馬 [ɯma] in Japanese, kabayo in Tagalog, pferd in German, סוס [sus] in Hebrew, and more. These

  • don't really sound alike at all, and you could find similar lists for most words if you look

  • across languages.

  • It’s not like this is a revolutionary ideaover a hundred years ago, the linguist

  • Ferdinand de Saussure was already wondering about what this meant for how language works.

  • He realized that there wasn't something fundamental about anything that ties sound and meaning

  • together, an idea which he termed thearbitrariness of the linguistic sign”. By this, he meant

  • that a language could pick potentially any combination of sounds to point out any object

  • or idea in the world. Horses don't have to be called horses.

  • This idea lies at the heart of our modern conception of words. We can't just tap into

  • some collective vocabulary unconscious; we have to learn each and every thing in every

  • language we pick up. It's a large part of why we assume that kids have such a challenge

  • in front of them when it comes to language acquisition, as we've talked about before.

  • And this applies to nearly all concepts in language! Pretty much everything you can think of

  • in the world has no deep-rooted connection between what it is and the words we use to describe it.

  • One exception to this is onomatopoeia, or words that imitate the sounds they're associated

  • with. So English speakers decided a long time ago that when you hear a bee fly by your ear,

  • and it makes that [bzzzz] sound, that's a buzz. The word is pretty much the same as

  • the noise coming from the insect. It's not arbitrarythere's a clear link between the two.

  • Excepthow true is this, really? If we look across different languages, we can often

  • find things that sound really different showing up as onomatopoeia for the same thing. Like,

  • take our horse from before, and picture it prancing down a nice cobblestone street. What

  • sound does it make? Well, in English, it goes clip-clop. But in Turkish, the same horse

  • running would go digidik-digidik, or in Punjabi it would go tun-tuk, or in Japanese, paka-paka.

  • In each case, you can imagine how the sound got turned into the onomatopoeic word, but

  • the results aren't close to being the same. And you can find this for lots of similar

  • onomatopoeic activitiesroosters crowing, people sneezing, dogs barking, and so forth.

  • But even if there are differences, we still have this intuition that underneath, these

  • aren't quite as arbitrary as calling a horse a horse instead of an uma. And we can show

  • that through psycholinguistic experiments. A 2016 study dug into this, using Japanese

  • ideophones, or onomatopoeic words. See, Japanese has this whole class of these ideophones that

  • get used to express not just things like quacking or laughing, but lots of other adjectives

  • and adverbs, too.

  • And they usually come in the form of two pairs of two syllables each. Like, excited is わくわく [wakɯwakɯ],

  • or exhausted is へとへと [hetoheto]. There are a ton of these pairs, but they should be less

  • immediately associated with the concepts underneath them, right? I mean, there's nothing particularly

  • fluffy about a word like ふわふわ [ɸɯwaɸɯwa]. A fluffy horse doesn't go ふわふわ as it fluffs on by.

  • To check into this, the researchers in the study took 38 of these words, and gave

  • them to native Dutch speakers, who didn't know any Japanese. The participants got shown

  • pairings of each Japanese word with a Dutch translation twice. But not all of them had

  • the right Dutch word: half of them got matched with the correct translation, and half of

  • them with the opposite translation. So, like, ぼろぼろ [boɾoboɾo] for worn out would

  • get the Dutchworn outversleten, but うきうき [ɯkiɯki] for happy would get paired with

  • verdrietig, or "sad".

  • After that, the participants were shown another set of word pairs: one of the Japanese words

  • with either the Dutch translation they'd already seen, or with some other random Dutch word.

  • They were asked to hit a button as quickly as they could to show whether this pairing

  • was one they'd seen already. And even after only having two exposures, something really

  • cool already turns up: it was a lot easier for the Dutch participants to remember a pairing

  • if the translation was correct in the first place. So they memorized the pairs where both

  • the Japanese and the Dutch meant the same thing 86.1% of the time, versus only 71.1% for the

  • ones where the words had opposite meanings.

  • And that wasn't the end of their evidence. The researchers also included a follow-up

  • part, where they confessed to the participants that they'd been devious, and that half the

  • Japanese words they'd learned were actually the opposite of the Dutch words. But they

  • didn’t tell them which half. Instead, participants were given all the Japanese words, and this

  • time, they had to choose between two opposites for the Dutch translation.

  • One opposite was always the Dutch word that they'd originally seen, and the other was something

  • new: so, like, if they got the word for energetic, きびきび [kibikibi], they'd have to choose between

  • the Dutch words for energetic vs. tired. If they were just picking randomly, knowing that

  • half of the translations they’d learned before were wrong, their success rate should

  • be at chance, or about 50%. But here, even after being told to disregard everything they'd

  • heard, participants still picked right 72.3% of the time.

  • But maybe this is just something about Japanese and Dutchmaybe the word matching between

  • the languages is better than we'd think. But ah, those careful researchers. They also

  • ran a study where participants went through the exact same steps, except with regular

  • Japanese adjectives. You know, the kind that are supposed to be totally arbitrary, with

  • no deep connections between the sounds, like 高い [takai] being tall or 安い [yasɯi] being cheap.

  • And with these words, there was less of an effect. They didn't remember the real

  • vs. opposite words any better, and while they were still above chance for the guessing between

  • two opposites part, their performance wasn't as high as with the ideophones.

  • So it looks like there's some meaning gain to the ideophones themselvesthere really

  • is something fluffy about ふわふわ. And it's not just here where this looks like it

  • can be helpfulit may also ease word learning in kids, as we'll talk about back on our website.

  • But why should this be the case? Well, the power of these words probably stems at least

  • partly from the sounds themselves, which seem to come with certain associations. You probably

  • don’t think of [k] or [f] as having anything particular meaning associated with them. Theyre just sounds.

  • But let’s try something that’s a bit more intuitive, based on an experiment first done

  • in 1929. Take a minute and look at these two shapes. All right? Now, if I told you that

  • one of them is a molmo and the other is an ikitik, which would you think is which?

  • The vast majority of people will associate the blobby shape with lower, rounder vowels

  • like [ɑ] or [o], and voiced labial consonants like [m] or [b], and smooth liquid [l]s. The

  • sharp, pointy shape will probably get voiceless stops like [k] or [t], high vowels like [i]

  • and [ɪ], and other sharp, pointy sounds. And this effect has been shown in languages from

  • English to Spanish to Tamil! This suggests that there might be a deeper association between

  • sounds and shapes, which has led some people to believe that the words we associate with concepts

  • are somewhat less than random, and that may connect into the differences in learning ideophones.

  • And it also explains why so much effort goes into picking out new product names. When a

  • new brand or product is getting ready to go on the market, a really important part of

  • the process is coming up with a good name. You want people to get the right idea about

  • your product right off the bat.

  • A really solid name can be so potent and so effective that it changes the way people see

  • the world. Like, if you think of brands like Google or Kleenex, they've affected

  • everyday speech for many English speakers, so that you cangoogle somethingwhen

  • using another search engine, and call nearly anything you can blow your nose with a “kleenex”.

  • But how do products get named? Obviously, it can’t be anything goofy or rude in your

  • target language, but there’s more to it than that. Pros of marketing and advertising

  • have got crafting the reality that surrounds their product and how people perceive it down

  • to a science. And linguistics is a big part of that. Big marketing companies often hire

  • linguists whose main role is to work out what kinds of ideas, emotions, and impressions

  • different possible brand names drum up.

  • Like, after doing studies with people in different parts of the world, researchers found that

  • some consonants give an impression of energy and vigor, like [k], [v], and [p]. So an imaginary

  • medication with a name like, say, Vivipec is probably marketed to recover your spirit

  • and vim, or a car called the Cortiva might sound like it’s sleek and sprightly, but

  • light on the bankbook.

  • So even if most words in language really are arbitrary, there may be more to pairing sounds

  • to meanings than first meets the eye. Onomatopoeia may nudge people towards understanding words

  • in surprising ways, even if the words themselves don’t immediately seem to be connected to

  • sound effects. And even sounds themselves might resonate with you in a certain way.

  • Sometimes, the way a word sounds might just lead you to a perfect match.

  • So weve reached the end of the Ling Space for this week. If you found my consonants

  • energetic, you learned that most words in language have no deep connection between their

  • sound and meaning; that it can be easier to pick up words that do have connections to

  • their sounds; and that even individual sounds have visual or emotional associations that

  • can carry across languages.

  • The Ling Space is produced by me, Moti Lieberman. It’s directed by Adèle-Elise Prévost,

  • and it’s written by both of us. Our editor is Georges Coulombe, our production assistant

  • is Stephan Hurtubise, our music is by Shane Turner, and our graphics team is atelierMUSE.

  • Were down in the comments below, or you can bring the discussion back over to our

  • website, where we have some extra material on this topic. Also, try dropping by our store,

  • where we have our new Super Schwa shirt, and this shirt, and a bunch of other linguistics

  • stuff! Check us out on Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, and if you want to keep expanding

  • your own personal Ling Space, please subscribe. And well see you next Wednesday. Ma te wa!

So let’s talk about matching. Sometimes, when we look at the world around us, it's

Subtitles and vocabulary

B1 INT US dutch japanese word translation horse sound

Do Sounds Carry Their Own Meanings? Onomatopoeia and Arbitrariness of the Sign

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    Jolisa Yang   posted on 2016/11/10
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