September 29, 2014
Exceptions to the Saussurian principle of arbitrariness are relatively limited in language, and several semantic domains have been identified in the scholarly literature as the primary loci of phonetic iconicity. One type of symbolism that has sparked debate regarding the nature of sound symbolism is the association of "smallness" and "nearness" meanings with high acoustic frequency sounds (and, conversely, the association of "largeness" and "distance" meanings with lower frequency sounds). Though this pattern of sound-meaning mappings has been reported in diverse languages worldwide, the universality of a link between acoustic frequencies and magnitudes has stirred some debate. This study looks at data from 120 Australian languages to investigate the occurrence of magnitude-related sound symbolism in these languages, which have been underrepresented in earlier cross-linguistic studies of sound symbolism. Comparisons of phoneme frequencies across size, distance, and basic vocabulary sets provides information about symbolism in these languages and the types of sounds through which it is expressed. By comparing the patterns found across language families/subgroups and geographic areas, these findings are also able to provide evidence about how magnitude sound symbolism arises more generally.