[lit-ideas] Language isn't arbitrary, convention based after all

  • From: Torgeir Fjeld <torgeir_fjeld@xxxxxxxx>
  • To: "lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx" <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 29 Oct 2013 03:33:35 +0000 (GMT)

"A bit of numerological mysticism can do wonders for the academic branch known 
as Linguistic Patricide, innit?" phatic muttered.

It was a dark and gloomy night at the No Holds Barred cafe in uptown Florida.

"You've been reading the Digest again, 'aven't ya," responded Beanieman 

phatic nodded, hesitantly. 

"Why it's apt - psycho-acoustically speaking - that Darth Vader wasn't called 
Barth Vaber"

The relationship between the meaning of a word and the letter strings of which 
it is comprised is usually thought to be arbitrary. That is, the meaning of a 
word is dictated by convention and the emotional tone of the speaker. Strip 
these away and the sounds of the letter groupings themselves - known as 
phonemes - are generally considered meaningless. At least that's been a popular 
view for some time.

But now a study has been published that challenges this account. Blake 
Myers-Schulz and his colleagues show that the shift in sound from some phonemes 
to others carries emotional meaning of its own, quite independent from word 
meanings or tone of voice.

Human speech creates sound at different frequencies. Myers-Schulz and his team 
focused on the changes in certain frequency peaks in speech - known as formants 
- as nonsense words were spoken. Specifically, they divided nonsense words into 
those in which the first two formants went from low to high (e.g. bupaba, 
pafabi, mipaba) and those in which this sound shift was reversed, going high to 
low (e.g. dugada, tatoku, gadigu). They were matched on many other sound 
features, such as plosives, nasality, intonation and volume.

Thirty-two adult participants were shown pairs of these nonsense words on a 
computer screen, one of which always went low to high, the other high to low 
(in terms of formant shifts). Together with the words, two pictures were shown, 
one positive, one negative (e.g. a cute puppy and a snarling dog). The 
participants' job was to allocate the two nonsense words to the two pictures in 
the way that seemed most appropriate. The key finding was that 80 per cent of 
the time, they matched the word that had the low-high sound shift with the 
positive picture and the high-to-low word with the negative picture.

It was a similar story when 20 more adult participants performed the same task 
but with the words spoken by a computer programme rather than shown visually. 
In this case, they matched the low-to-high nonsense words with the positive 
pictures on 65 per cent of occasions - still far more often than you'd expect 
based on chance alone.

The findings suggest that strings of phonemes (the sounds that comprise words) 
have an emotional quality of their own, quite separate from any word meaning or 
the tone or volume of an utterance. This emotional meaning is conveyed purely 
by the acoustic properties of the word as the sound frequencies change from one 
phoneme to the next.

There could be intriguing real-life applications for this research in terms of 
marketing and PR because the implication is that some words convey positive 
emotion simply by virtue of their acoustic properties, above and beyond any 
literal word meaning. "Even in artistic contexts, such as film and literature, 
these acoustic principles could be applied to evoke a particular emotional 
subtext," the researchers said. "Indeed our data suggest that 'Darth Vader' is 
an acoustically more appropriate name for an intergalactic miscreant than 
'Barth Vaber'."

Myers-Schulz B, Pujara M, Wolf RC and Koenigs M (2013). Inherent emotional 
quality of human speech sounds. Cognition and emotion, 27 (6), 1105-13 PMID: 
Mvh / Yours,

Torgeir Fjeld
Gdansk, Poland

Blogs: http://phatic.blogspot.com // http://norsketegn.blogspot.com
Web: http://independent.academia.edu/TorgeirFjeld

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