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Quantifying iconicity’s contribution during language acquisition: Implications for vocabulary learning


Perlman,  Marcus
Language and Cognition Department, MPI for Psycholinguistics, Max Planck Society;

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Massaro, D. W., & Perlman, M. (2017). Quantifying iconicity’s contribution during language acquisition: Implications for vocabulary learning. Frontiers in Communication, 2: 4. doi:10.3389/fcomm.2017.00004.

Cite as: https://hdl.handle.net/11858/00-001M-0000-002C-A6F0-4
Previous research found that iconicity—the motivated correspondence between word form and meaning—contributes to expressive vocabulary acquisition. We present two new experiments with two different databases and with novel analyses to give a detailed quantification of how iconicity contributes to vocabulary acquisition across development, including both receptive understanding and production. The results demonstrate that iconicity is more prevalent early in acquisition and diminishes with increasing age and with increasing vocabulary. In the first experiment, we found that the influence of iconicity on children’s production vocabulary decreased gradually with increasing age. These effects were independent of the observed influence of concreteness, difficulty of articulation, and parental input frequency. Importantly, we substantiated the independence of iconicity, concreteness, and systematicity—a statistical regularity between sounds and meanings. In the second experiment, we found that the average iconicity of both a child’s receptive vocabulary and expressive vocabulary diminished dramatically with increases in vocabulary size. These results indicate that iconic words tend to be learned early in the acquisition of both receptive vocabulary and expressive vocabulary. We recommend that iconicity be included as one of the many different influences on a child’s early vocabulary acquisition. Facing the logically insurmountable challenge to link the form of a novel word (e.g., “gavagai”) with its particular meaning (e.g., “rabbit”; Quine, 1960, 1990/1992), children manage to learn words with incredible ease. Interest in this process has permeated empirical and theoretical research in developmental psychology, psycholinguistics, and language studies more generally. Investigators have studied which words are learned and when they are learned (Fenson et al., 1994), biases in word learning (Markman, 1990, 1991); the perceptual, social, and linguistic properties of the words (Gentner, 1982; Waxman, 1999; Maguire et al., 2006; Vosoughi et al., 2010), the structure of the language being learned (Gentner and Boroditsky, 2001), and the influence of the child’s milieu on word learning (Hart and Risley, 1995; Roy et al., 2015). A growing number of studies also show that the iconicity of words might be a significant factor in word learning (Imai and Kita, 2014; Perniss and Vigliocco, 2014; Perry et al., 2015). Iconicity refers generally to a correspondence between the form of a signal (e.g., spoken word, sign, and written character) and its meaning. For example, the sign for tree is iconic in many signed languages: it resembles a branching tree waving above the ground in American Sign Language, outlines the shape of a tree in Danish Sign Language and forms a tree trunk in Chinese Sign Language. In contrast to signed languages, the words of spoken languages have traditionally been treated as arbitrary, with the assumption that the forms of most words bear no resemblance to their meaning (e.g., Hockett, 1960; Pinker and Bloom, 1990). However, there is now a large body of research showing that iconicity is prevalent in the lexicons of many spoken languages (Nuckolls, 1999; Dingemanse et al., 2015). Most languages have an inventory of iconic words for sounds—onomatopoeic words such as splash, slurp, and moo, which sound somewhat like the sound of the real-world event to which they refer. Rhodes (1994), for example, counts more than 100 of these words in English. Many languages also contain large inventories of ideophones—a distinctively iconic class of words that is used to express a variety of sensorimotor-rich meanings (Nuckolls, 1999; Voeltz and Kilian-Hatz, 2001; Dingemanse, 2012). For example, in Japanese, the word “koron”—with a voiceless [k] refers to a light object rolling once, the reduplicated “korokoro” to a light object rolling repeatedly, and “gorogoro”—with a voiced [g]—to a heavy object rolling repeatedly (Imai and Kita, 2014). And in Siwu, spoken in Ghana, ideophones include words like fwεfwε “springy, elastic” and saaa “cool sensation” (Dingemanse et al., 2015). Outside of onomatopoeia and ideophones, there is also evidence that adjectives and verbs—which also tend to convey sensorimotor imagery—are also relatively iconic (Nygaard et al., 2009; Perry et al., 2015). Another domain of iconic words involves some correspondence between the point of articulation of a word and its meaning. For example, there appears to be some prevalence across languages of nasal consonants in words for nose and bilabial consonants in words for lip (Urban, 2011). Spoken words can also have a correspondence between a word’s meaning and other aspects of its pronunciation. The word teeny, meaning small, is pronounced with a relatively small vocal tract, with high front vowels characterized by retracted lips and a high-frequency second formant (Ohala, 1994). Thus, teeny can be recognized as iconic of “small” (compared to the larger vocal tract configuration of the back, rounded vowel in huge), a pattern that is documented in the lexicons of a diversity of languages (Ultan, 1978; Blasi et al., 2016). Lewis and Frank (2016) have studied a more abstract form of iconicity that more meaningfully complex words tend to be longer. An evaluation of many diverse languages revealed that conceptually more complex meanings tend to have longer spoken forms. In their study, participants tended to assign a relatively long novel word to a conceptually more complex referent. Understanding that more complex meaning is usually represented by a longer word could aid a child’s parsing of a stream of spoken language and thus facilitate word learning. Some developmental psychologists have theorized that iconicity helps young children learn words by “bootstrapping” or “bridging” the association between a symbol and its referent (Imai and Kita, 2014; Perniss and Vigliocco, 2014). According to this idea, children begin to master word learning with the aid of iconic cues, which help to profile the connection between the form of a word and its meaning out in the world. The learning of verbs in particular may benefit from iconicity, as the referents of verbs are more abstract and challenging for young children to identify (Gentner, 1982; Snedeker and Gleitman, 2004). By helping children gain a firmer grasp of the concept of a symbol, iconicity might set the stage for the ensuing word-learning spurt of non-iconic words. The hypothesis that iconicity plays a role in word learning is supported by experimental studies showing that young children are better at learning words—especially verbs—when they are iconic (Imai et al., 2008; Kantartzis et al., 2011; Yoshida, 2012). In one study, for example, 3-year-old Japanese children were taught a set of novel verbs for actions. Some of the words the children learned were iconic (“sound-symbolic”), created on the basis of iconic patterns found in Japanese mimetics (e.g., the novel word nosunosu for a slow manner of walking; Imai et al., 2008). The results showed that children were better able to generalize action words across agents when the verb was iconic of the action compared to when it was not. A subsequent study also using novel verbs based on Japanese mimetics replicated the finding with 3-year-old English-speaking children (Kantartzis et al., 2011). However, it remains to be determined whether children trained in an iconic condition can generalize their learning to a non-iconic condition that would not otherwise be learned. Children as young as 14 months of age have been shown to benefit from iconicity in word learning (Imai et al., 2015). These children were better at learning novel words for spikey and rounded shapes when the words were iconic, corresponding to kiki and bouba sound symbolism (e.g., Köhler, 1947; Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). If iconic words are indeed easier to learn, there should be a preponderance of iconic words early in the learning of natural languages. There is evidence that this is the case in signed languages, which are widely recognized to contain a prevalence of iconic signs [Klima and Bellugi, 1979; e.g., as evident in Signing Savvy (2016)]. Although the role of iconicity in sign acquisition has been disputed [e.g., Orlansky and Bonvillian, 1984; see Thompson (2011) for discussion], the most thorough study to date found that signs of British Sign Language (BSL) that were learned earlier by children tended to be more iconic (Thompson et al., 2012). Thompson et al.’s measure of the age of acquisition of signs came from parental reports from a version of the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory (MCDI; Fenson et al., 1994) adapted for BSL (Woolfe et al., 2010). The iconicity of signs was taken from norms based on BSL signers’ judgments using a scale of 1 (not at all iconic) to 7 [highly iconic; see Vinson et al. (2008), for norming details and BSL videos]. Thompson et al. (2012) found a positive correlation between iconicity judgments and words understood and produced. This relationship held up even after controlling for the contribution of imageability and familiarity. Surprisingly, however, there was a significantly stronger correlation for older children (21- to 30-month olds) than for younger children (age 11- to 20-month olds). Thompson et al. suggested that the larger role for iconicity for the older children may result from their increasing cognitive abilities or their greater experience in understanding meaningful form-meaning mappings. However, this suggestion does not fit with the expectation that iconicity should play a larger role earlier in language use. Thus, although supporting a role for iconicity in word learning, the larger influence for older children is inconsistent with the bootstrapping hypothesis, in which iconicity should play a larger role earlier in vocabulary learning (Imai and Kita, 2014; Perniss and Vigliocco, 2014). There is also evidence in spoken languages that earlier learned words tend to be more iconic. Perry et al. (2015) collected iconicity ratings on the roughly 600 English and Spanish words that are learned earliest by children, selected from their respective MCDIs. Native speakers on Amazon Mechanical Turk rated the iconicity of the words on a scale from −5 to 5, where 5 indicated that a word was highly iconic, −5 that it sounded like the opposite of its meaning, and 0 that it was completely arbitrary. Their instructions to raters are given in the Appendix because the same instructions were used for acquiring our iconicity ratings. The Perry et al. (2015) results showed that the likelihood of a word in children’s production vocabulary in both English and Spanish at 30 months was positively correlated with the iconicity ratings, even when several other possible contributing factors were partialed out, including log word frequency, concreteness, and word length. The pattern in Spanish held for two collections of iconicity ratings, one with the verbs of the 600-word set presented in infinitive form, and one with the verbs conjugated in the third person singular form. In English, the correlation between age of acquisition and iconicity held when the ratings were collected for words presented in written form only and in written form plus a spoken recording. It also held for ratings based on a more implicit measure of iconicity in which participants rated how accurately a space alien could guess the meaning of the word based on its sound alone. The pattern in English also held when Perry et al. (2015) factored out the systematicity of words [taken from Monaghan et al. (2014)]. Systematicity is measured as a correlation between form similarity and meaning similarity—that is, the degree to which words with similar meanings have similar forms. Monaghan et al. computed systematicity for a large number of English words and found a negative correlation with the age of acquisition of the word from 2 to 13+ years of age—more systematic words are learned earlier. Monaghan et al. (2014) and Christiansen and Chater (2016) observe that consistent sound-meaning patterns may facilitate early vocabulary acquisition, but the child would soon have to master arbitrary relationships necessitated by increases in vocabulary size. In theory, systematicity, sometimes called “relative iconicity,” is independent of iconicity. For example, the English cluster gl– occurs systematically in several words related to “vision” and “light,” such as glitter, glimmer, and glisten (Bergen, 2004), but the segments bear no obvious resemblance to this meaning. Monaghan et al. (2014) question whether spoken languages afford sufficient degrees of articulatory freedom for words to be iconic but not systematic. As evidence, they give the example of onomatopoeic words for the calls of small animals (e.g., peep and cheep) versus calls of big animals (roar and grrr), which would systematically reflect the size of the animal. Although Perry et al. (2015) found a positive effect of iconicity at 30 months, they did not evaluate its influence across the first years of a child’s life. To address this question, we conduct a more detailed examination of the time course of iconicity in word learning across the first 4 years of expressive vocabulary acquisition. In addition, we examine the role of iconicity in the acquisition of receptive vocabulary as well as productive vocabulary. There is some evidence that although receptive vocabulary and productive vocabulary are correlated with one another, a variable might not have equivalent influences on these two expressions of vocabulary. Massaro and Rowe (2015), for example, showed that difficulty of articulation had a strong effect on word production but not word comprehension. Thus, it is possible that the influence of iconicity on vocabulary development differs between production and comprehension. In particular, a larger influence on comprehension might follow from the emphasis of the bootstrapping hypothesis on iconicity serving to perceptually cue children to the connection between the sound of a word and its meaning