22. November 2017

Already basic sounds convey meaning

How do we convey meaning in verbal interaction? As part of linguistics, the discipline of phonosemantics explores the ability of phonemes to transport content to the smallest sound units of a language system. The term sound iconicity refers to the acoustic representation (e. g. in form of speech sounds) of non-acoustic phenomena (e. g. spatial size) - stimuli from the sensory categories of seeing and hearing are associated with each other, because our brain classifies certain characteristics of these stimuli as "similar".

The results of a new study by the linguist Jan Auracher at the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics now show that the mental connection between sounds and images goes far beyond mere proportions. "In our study participants connected the sound of dark vowels such as "Oh" not only with size per se, but with a feeling of dominance or strength," explains Jan Auracher. Thus, it became clear that associations with linguistic sounds enable the mediation of abstract concepts of content (e.g. a threat scenario). This human ability forms an interface between perceptible characteristics of language and their understanding. Based on these findings, acoustic properties of phonemes can also be associated with social behavior. The study was published in the journal PLOS One and is available as an Open Access publication at the link below.

Original Publication

Auracher, J. (2017) Sound iconicity of abstract concepts: Place of articulation is implicitly associated with abstract concepts of size and social dominance. PLOS ONE 12(11): e0187196. Doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0187196


Jan Auracher (Department of Language and Literature)
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt/Main
Phone +49 69 8300479-124

Andrea Treber (Press and PR)
Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, Frankfurt/Main
Phone +49 69 8300479-652