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Title: Iconicity in Language Comprehension: A Plausibility Study on Sound Symbolism from Cantonese Ideophones
Authors: Yeung, Michael
Advisors: Foley, Steven
Department: Independent Concentration
Certificate Program: Program in Cognitive Science
Class Year: 2021
Abstract: The recent burgeoning interest in sound symbolism research has increasingly shown that iconicity, or the connection between the form and meaning of a word, is a well-attested feature in natural human language. However, little research thus far has examined the way that we process iconic words, especially in relation to non-iconic words during online language comprehension. This thesis seeks to extend the current understanding of the processing of iconicity by integrating Cantonese ideophones into wider linguistic structures as stimuli in a 2x2 study that manipulates sentence plausibility and the degree of iconicity (high vs. low), eliciting plausibility judgments and measuring reaction times. I hypothesized that more iconic ideophones would render the meaning conveyed more vivid, thus sharpening one’s intuition about sentence plausibility. However, the findings of the experiment run contrary to my hypothesis, and instead show that items with less iconic ideophones were judged more readily (with shorter mean reaction time), and more sensitively (with a greater mean difference in ratings between the two plausibility conditions), suggesting that the presence of a greater degree of iconicity in fact impedes semantic processing. I offer three possible explanations for this, pertaining to the inherent complexity of processing iconic meaning as suggested by previous neuroimaging studies, the need to “switch gears” between processing iconic and non-iconic meaning, and the relative frequencies of ideophones. I further present a formal schematization of form-to-meaning mappings of ideophones, using it to suggest that the inaccessibility of a plausible chain of inferences connecting the form and meaning of less iconic ideophones may mean that we compose their meaning in a similar way as for arbitrary, non-iconic words. These findings, while preliminary, provide a way to concretize theoretical discussions of iconicity in the literature, and will hopefully pave the way for future research in this realm.
Type of Material: Princeton University Senior Theses
Language: en
Appears in Collections:Independent Concentration, 1972-2021

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