This dissertation examines systematic sound-meaning correspondences in sound-symbolic words from a cross-linguistic perspective, investigating whether and to what degree they are naturally motivated. Its aims are to assess empirical evidence for the Explanatory Sound-symbolism Hypothesis (ESH): that sound symbolism is primarily governed by natural motivation, in particular, by a connection between human perceptual and language systems. The languages examined are Korean and English, which are genealogically unrelated.
Chapter One surveys the literature and discusses the iconicity of meaning-bearing elements of Korean ideophones (MEI’s) and English phonaesthemes. On a conceptual level, one can argue that Korean MEI’s exhibit translucent iconicity, in which natural motivation prevails over arbitrariness, while English phonaesthemes exhibit opaque iconicity (or secondary iconicity). This suggests that the former would be consistent with the ESH and that the latter, in which the naturalness is blocked by arbitrary conventionalisation, would support the alternative, the Conventional Sound-symbolism Hypothesis. Chapter Two reviews previous experimental studies of the iconicity of language, covering not only the traditional explicit paradigms this thesis adopts, but also the recent advancements of implicit methods in sound-symbolic literature. Chapter Three examines methods for calibrating and comparing Korean MEI’s and English phonaesthemes to other morphological entities, by applying the methods of Canonical Typology. On a theoretical level, it is proposed that English phonaesthemes sit closer to classic arbitrary morphemes than do MEI’s within morphological theory. This coincides with the conceptual characterisation of their iconicity levels in Chapter One, i.e., that phonaesthemes, which have opaque iconicity, exhibit a lower level of natural iconicity than MEI’s. Chapters Four through Six examine cross-linguistic interpretations of Korean ideophones and English phonaesthemic words from an empirical perspective. These include two perception experiments, where native speakers of both Korean and English speakers guess the meanings of nonsense words, created based on existing (a) Korean and (b) English sound-symbolic words. To empirically investigate the natural iconicity in Korean MEI’s, two different language groups (i.e., Korean and English) listened to nonsense Korean ideophonic pairs and chose their meanings in binary-choice meaning matching tasks. Taking into account the Korean sound discrimination levels of the English-speaking participants, Chapter Four reveals that vocalic MEI’s are based on convention, since an above-chance level of correct meaning-matching rates was not achieved across the language groups. In contrast, Chapter Five argues that consonantal MEI’s are based on natural motivation, supporting the ESH. To empirically investigate natural iconicity in phonaesthemes, the Korean- and English-speaking participants guessed meanings of phonaesthemes in sets of aurally presented nonsense core English phonaesthemic words in free-choice and multiple-choice tasks. The results differed depending on testing methods. In the free-choice task, interpretations of phonaesthemes did not converge across the language groups. However, in the multiple-choice task, some phonaesthemes received above-chance level of correct-guessing rates. From this, it is speculated that the natural iconicity of phonaesthemes is recognised only when available contexts have been sufficiently constrained.
The findings show that the translucent iconicity of MEI’s gains empirical support only in the case of consonantal MEI’s. Contrary to predictions made on a conceptual basis in Chapter One, the vocalic MEI’s display opaque iconicity. With respect to phonaesthemes, some exhibit translucent iconicity when available contexts have been constrained, as in the multiple-choice task. Altogether, the dissertation reveals that sound-symbolic phenomena have varying degrees of motivatedness as linguistic signs, and that some instances of sound symbolism are based on arbitrary convention, contrary to the central claim of the ESH. To some extent, this counters the proposition that sound-symbolic phenomena represent a challenge to the near-axiomatic expectation in modern linguistics, that pairings of sounds with simple meanings are arbitrary, and it encourages us to recognise the role of iconicity in language with a caveat.