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Iconicity and spoken language

Jones, JM; (2017) Iconicity and spoken language. Doctoral thesis , UCL (University College London).

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Contrary to longstanding assumptions about the arbitrariness of language, recent work has highlighted how much iconicity – i.e. non-arbitrariness – exists in language, in the form of not only onomatopoeia (bang, splash, meow), but also sound-symbolism, signed vocabulary, and (in a paralinguistic channel) mimetic gesture. But is this iconicity ornamental, or does it represent a systematic feature of language important in language acquisition, processing, and evolution? Scholars have begun to address this question, and this thesis adds to that effort, focusing on spoken language (including gesture). After introducing iconicity and reviewing the literature in the introduction, Chapter 2 reviews sound-shape iconicity (the “kiki-bouba” effect), and presents a norming study that verifies the phonetic parameters of the effect, suggesting that it likely involves multiple mechanisms. Chapter 3 shows that sound-shape iconicity helps participants learn in a model of vocabulary acquisition (cross-situational learning) by disambiguating reference. Variations on this experiment show that the round association may be marginally stronger than the spiky, but only barely, suggesting that representations of lip shape may be partly but not entirely responsible for the effect. Chapter 4 models language change using the iterated learning paradigm. It shows that iconicity (both sound-shape and motion) emerges from an arbitrary initial language over ten ‘generations’ of speakers. I argue this shows that psychological biases introduce systematic pressure towards iconicity over language change, and that moreover spoken iconicity can help bootstrap a system of communication. Chapter 5 shifts to children and gesture, attempting to answer whether children can take meaning from iconic action gestures. Results here were null, but definitive conclusions must await new experiments with higher statistical power. The conclusion sums up my findings and their significance, and points towards crucial research for the future.

Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Title: Iconicity and spoken language
Event: UCL (University College London)
Language: English
UCL classification: UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences
UCL > Provost and Vice Provost Offices > School of Life and Medical Sciences > Faculty of Brain Sciences
URI: http://discovery.ucl.ac.uk/id/eprint/1559788
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