The question of the arbitrariness of language is among the oldest in cognitive sciences, and it relates to the nature of the associations between vocal sounds and their meaning. Growing evidence seems to support sound symbolism, claiming for a naturally constrained mapping of meaning into sounds. Most of such evidence, however, comes from studies based on the interpretation of pseudowords, and to date, there is little empirical evidence that sound symbolism can affect phonatory behavior. In the present study, we asked participants to utter the letter /a/ in response to visual stimuli varying in shape, luminance, and size, and we observed consistent sound symbolic effects on vocalizations. Utterances’ loudness was modulated by stimulus shape and luminance. Moreover, stimulus shape consistently modulated the frequency of the third formant (F3). This finding reveals an automatic mapping of specific visual attributes into phonological features of vocalizations. Furthermore, it suggests that sound-meaning associations are reciprocal, affecting active (production) as well as passive (comprehension) linguistic behavior.
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We would like to thank Elisa Pellencin for her precious help in running the experiments and extracting the phonological parameters of the vocalizations. This work was supported by a PRIN grant to F.P. and has been realized also thanks to the support from the Provincia autonoma di Trento and the Fondazione Cassa di Risparmio di Trento e Rovereto.
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