On the cognitive basis of contact-induced sound change: Vowel merger reversal in Shanghainese

Yao Yao, The Hong Kong Polytechnic University & Charles B. Chang, Boston University

This study investigates the source and status of a recent sound change in Shanghainese (Wu, Sinitic) that has been attributed to language contact withMandarin. The change involves two vowels, /e/ and /ɛ/, reported to be merged three decades ago but produced distinctly in contemporary Shanghainese. Results of two production experiments show that speaker age, language mode (monolingual Shanghainese vs. bilingual Shanghainese-Mandarin), and crosslinguistic phonological similarity all influence the production of these vowels. These findings provide evidence for language contact as a linguistic means of merger reversal and are consistent with the view that contact phenomena originate from cross-language interaction within the bilingual mind.

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Research Report (Online-only)

What sound symbolism can and cannot do: Testing the iconicity of ideophones from five languages

Mark Dingemanse, Will Schuerman, Eva Reinisch, Sylvia Tufvesson, Holger Mitterer

Sound symbolism is a phenomenon with broad relevance to the study of language and mind, but there has been a disconnect between its investigations in linguistics and psychology. This study tests the sound-symbolic potential of ideophones—words described as iconic—in an experimental task that improves over prior work in terms of ecological validity and experimental control. We presented 203 ideophones from five languages to eighty-two Dutch listeners in a binary-choice task, in four versions: original recording, full diphone resynthesis, segments-only resynthesis, and prosody-only resynthesis. Listeners guessed the meaning of all four versions above chance, confirming the iconicity of ideophones and showing the viability of speech synthesis as a way of controlling for segmental and suprasegmental properties in experimental studies of sound symbolism. The success rate was more modest than prior studies using pseudowords like bouba/kiki, implying that assumptions based on such words cannot simply be transferred to natural languages. Prosody and segments together drive the effect: neither alone is sufficient, showing that segments and prosody work together as cues supporting iconic interpretations. The findings cast doubt on attempts to ascribe iconic meanings to segments alone and support a view of ideophones as words that combine arbitrariness and iconicity. We discuss the implications for theory and methods in the empirical study of sound symbolism and iconicity.

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