Iconicity in ideophones: a cross-linguistic, cross-methodological approach to operationalising iconicity.

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Ideophones, or marked words depicting sensory imagery, often make use of iconic mappings that connect aspects of form and aspects of meaning through perceptual or motor analogies. This is why ideophones form an excellent resource for the study of iconicity in natural language. This thesis investigates how Dutch native speakers rate the iconicity of 240 ideophones from five languages unknown to them: Japanese, Korean, Ewe (a Kwa language spoken in Ghana and Togo), Siwu (a Na-Togo language spoken in Ghana), and Semai (a Mon-Khmer language spoken in Malaysia). These ideophones have been divided into different semantic categories related to sound, motion, texture, shape and colour/visual appearance. It is shown that all categories differ significantly from one another in terms of iconicity ratings, with ideophones in the domain of sound being rated as the most iconic and ideophones referring to colour/visual appearance as the least iconic. Furthermore, the iconicity ratings are compared with the results of two forced-choice experiments involving the guessing of meanings of the same set of ideophones. There is a strong positive correlation between the guessing performances and iconicity ratings: in general, ideophones that are given high ratings in the current study have also been guessed above chance in the previous experiments. This implies that people make use of similar intuitions about the concept of iconicity in these two methods. Humans are apparently quite adept at distinguishing the more iconic words from the less iconic, even in languages unknown to them, which supports the idea that iconicity is a universal feature of language. The results of this study form a solid basis for further research about which aspects of form and meaning exactly contribute to iconicity, and if the iconicity of words can be predicted in this way. Combining these different operationalisations can ultimately lead to a better understanding of the concept of iconicity and how sensory information is incorporated in human language.
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