It is a long established convention that the relationship between sounds and meanings of words is essentially arbitrary—typically the sound of a word gives no hint of its meaning. However, there are numerous reported instances of systematic sound–meaning mappings in language, and this systematicity has been claimed to be important for early language development. In a large-scale corpus analysis of English, we show that sound–meaning mappings are more systematic than would be expected by chance. Furthermore, this systematicity is more pronounced for words involved in the early stages of language acquisition and reduces in later vocabulary development. We propose that the vocabulary is structured to enable systematicity in early language learning to promote language acquisition, while also incorporating arbitrariness for later language in order to facilitate communicative expressivity and efficiency.
One contribution of 12 to a Theme Issue ‘Language as a multimodal phenomenon: implications for language learning, processing and evolution’.
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