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Experimental assessment of sound symbolism and evolutionary considerations

Abstract : Sound symbolism, or motivation as we will later refer to it, corresponds to the assumption that some words have a natural relation with their significations, instead of an arbitrary one, through their segmental composition. Some evidence stands out from the literature, from cross-linguistic investigations to psycholinguistic experimentations. For example, a closed vowel [i] is more associated to smallness, while an open vowel like [a] is more associated to largeness. This pattern appears in the lexicon of different languages (e.g. Ohala, 1997), as well as in results of associative tasks (Sapir, 1929) with participants speakingdifferent languages and at different life stages. These commonalities (e.g. Iwasaki, Vinson, & Vigliocco, 2007) and their earliness (e.g. Ozturk, Krehm, & Vouloumanos, 2013) enable to formulate the hypothesis that motivation may have represented a key-driver in the emergence of language (Imai et al., 2015), by facilitating interactions and agreement between individuals.This thesis offers several methodological contributions to the study of motivated associations. The first study of this thesis aimed at assessing whether animal features (e.g. dangerousness) or biological classes (birds vs. fish, based on Berlin, 1994) would be relevant concepts for highlighting motivated associations, based on the assumption that animals would have represented suitable candidates for the content of early interactions (as potential sources of food and threats). It raised issues regarding methodological settings which led to the second study consisting in comparing different protocols of association tasks that are found across experimentations. Indeed, in the literature, the settings and population vary from one study to another, and it is therefore not possible to determine which one of the two types of contrasts implied in association tasks is determinant for making associations: either the phonetic one or the conceptual one. This second study permitted to appraise the influence of different protocols by controlling for other sources of variation across the tasks. It also highlighted the need to better analyze the cognitive processes involved in motivated associations. This led us to complement our investigation of phonetic and conceptual contrast with a study on the influence of the graphemic shapes of letters, following Cuskley, Simmer and Kirby (2015)’s proposal of an impact of the shapes of letters in the bouba-kiki task. This task is a well-known paradigm in the study of motivated associations, based on associating pseudo-words with round or spiky shapes. Cuskley et al. suggested that a spiky shape would facilitate the processing of a pseudoword that contains an angular letter such as ‘k’. On our third study, we considered an implicit version of the ‘bouba-kiki’ task, namely a lexical decision task, building on a previous experiment by Westbury (2005). In this experiment, spiky and round frames, in which the linguistic stimuli appeared, seemed to facilitate the processing of pseudo-words according to their segmental composition (e.g. spiky frames would facilitate the processing of voiceless plosives like [k]). We manipulated the shapes of letters with two different fonts for displaying linguistic stimuli – one angular and one curvy – and tried to disentangle the respective impacts of frames and of these fonts on the participants’ response times. The results highlighted the importance of taking into account low-level visual processes in the study of motivated associations.
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Submitted on : Tuesday, August 25, 2020 - 11:19:22 AM
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Léa de Carolis. Experimental assessment of sound symbolism and evolutionary considerations. Psychology. Université de Lyon, 2019. English. ⟨NNT : 2019LYSE2039⟩. ⟨tel-02921456⟩

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