Toward a phonosemantic definition of iconic words

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Most studies have tried to define inherently iconic words (mimetics, ideophones) in terms of their formal features but phonosemantic peculiarity, assumed without empirical consideration, is not evidently distinct from regular sound symbolism. Two experiments were conducted to probe the phonosemantic specificity of iconic words. Experiment 1 asked twenty native Japanese speakers to rate 140 novel words, half of which had a shape typical of Japanese iconic words: no systematic difference in consonantal or vocalic symbolism between the two types of stimuli was obtained. Experiment 2 asked twenty native Japanese speakers to judge the consonantal magnitude symbolism of 120 verbs with or without a typical iconic word shape presented in a referentially specific sentence. Verbs sharing a root and a morphophonological shape with an existent iconic word tended to yield sharper magnitude contrasts. Iconic words appear to have marked phonosemantic status, which is grounded on both their formal and referential markedness.


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