Words that Sound Like Their Meaning are Easier to Learn, Study Finds – Lily Feinn

To explore how sensitive native Dutch speakers are to sound-symbolism, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics and Radboud University in the Netherlands devised learning exercises using Japanese ideophones. From the thousands of mimetics in the Japanese language, researchers started with a list of 376 words. They eliminated all but 95 that had clear easily-understandable Dutch translations (for example, the ideophone “fuwafuwa” which means “fluffy”).

Sometimes science takes the time to provide formal evidence to something we’re already pretty sure is true anyway.

For example, years ago, as a simple, starry-eyed anthropology major, I was explaining (animal cruelty warningHarlow’s experiments to a classmate. Being the excitable pedant I am, I detailed the experiments’ procedures and findings to the point of exhaustion. Finally, the classmate, whose face had twisting in gradations of disgust and horror for the past several minutes, stopped me.

“But what was the point?” she said.

I replied that Harlow was looking to find the extent of creatures’ maternal attachments. If you, reader, are not familiar with the study and have chosen to bypass the linked summary, the conclusion thereof was that monkeys preferred the company of a warm, soft maternal surrogate that was incapable of providing food to a food-providing, but cold, metal, and occasionally punishing maternal surrogate. The monkeys’ formed one-sided relationships with the soft mothers. Additionally, those monkeys who had a soft mother available exhibited fewer signs of mental distress.

By the time I had finished explaining, my classmate was visibly annoyed. “That’s it? Well duh.”

Harlow’s conclusions were no surprise to her. I must disclose that she, herself, was a mother, and so she felt that the transcendence of the maternal relationship beyond mere sustenance was so obvious a fact that it did not demand testing, let alone of such barbaric variety.

The point of all of this is to prove, anecdotally, that there are plenty of conclusions so foregone, it seems fruitless to test them. The headline study summarized by Lily Feinn, by all appearances, seems to fit in that category. This one just so happens to prove a relationship between onomatopoeic words and accessibility. It seems obvious that words that sound like their subjects are easier to learn and remember than those that have no such relationship. And yet, the point of research is not to uncover the solution to some grand mystery. It is to confirm or disprove a hypothesis, even if that hypothesis appears obvious.

Plus, it isn’t worth arguing that just because something is obvious, it is not necessarily true.

I will spare you my opinions on semiology this time.

Words that Sound Like Their Meaning are Easier to Learn, Study Finds – Lily Feinn

The full study can be found here.


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