The Power of Words in the Brain: Systematic Sound-Meaning Associations in Novel and Existing Words


In a series of experiments conducted with Dutch native speakers, we explored systematic size/power sound-symbolic associations in novel and existing words. In Experiment 1 (N = 64), participants associated vowel-intrinsic fundamental frequency with size/power, disregarding the modality of stimuli presentation (spoken, written), but depending on the lexical status of the stimulus (more strongly for novel then for existing words). In Experiment 2 (N = 56), we explored the idea that the order of vowels in a word affects sound-symbolic associations, as pitch contours emerge from a sequence of vowel-intrinsic fundamental frequencies. Participants perceived stimuli with 'rising' combinations of front-back vowels as less powerful than stimuli with ‘falling’ combinations. This finding indicates that even in non-tonal languages, sound symbolism is not bound to a single segment (phoneme). We compared the effect to the perception of tones in a tonal language, which we explored in Experiment 3 with Mandarin native speakers (N = 96) judging the perception of power in monosyllabic novel brand names with four different tones (rising, falling, level and fall-rise). In Experiment 4 (N = 146), we examined the effect of vowel-intrinsic intensity, which has previously remained un-noted. The results showed that like fundamental frequency, also intrinsic intensity influences size/power-symbolic associations.

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