April 5, 2010

Sound symbolism strikes a chord in psychology

The topic of how sounds affect language learning, comprehension and development may sound esoteric, but the subject is attracting growing interest among psychologists. A March 26-27 Emory conference, “Sound Symbolism: Challenging the Arbitrariness of Language,” attracted more interest than was anticipated.

“It seems like there is a convergence of minds on this topic,” says Emory psychologist Laura Namy, whose work focuses on how children learn language.

“A lot of people who study the processing of language are starting to realize that there may not be as much arbitrariness as was previously thought. And a growing number of students are realizing the importance of the topic and wanting to work on this.”

Namy organized the conference along with Emory psychologist Lynne Nygaard, who studies the relationship between the way something is said and the meaning of the words.

“Lynne and I sat down and put together a wish list of the top 10 people, from around the country and the world, who were doing the most cutting-edge research in sound symbolism,” Namy says. The result was presentations from the perspectives of developmental psychology, neuroscience and computational modeling.

“This was a working meeting,” Namy says. “The idea was to bring together all the pieces of the puzzle and have everybody contribute ideas to set a research agenda in the coming years.”

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