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The Sensory Structure of the English Lexicon

  • Author(s): Winter, Bodo
  • Advisor(s): Matlock, Teenie
  • et al.
Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International Public License

Language vividly connects to the world around us by encoding sensory information. For example, the words "fragrant" and "silky" evoke smell and touch, whereas "hazy", "beeping" and "salty" evoke vision, hearing and taste. This dissertation shows that the sensory modality that a word evokes is highly predictive of a word’s linguistic behavior in a way that supports embodied cognition theories. That is, perceptual differences between the senses result in linguistic differences, and interrelations in perception result in interrelations in language.

Chapter 3 provides evidence that the English language exhibits visual dominance, with visual words such as "bright", "purple" and "shiny" being more frequent, less contextually restricted and more semantically complex. These linguistic patterns are argued to follow from the perceptual dominance of vision.

Chapters 4 and 5 show that taste, smell and touch words form an affectively loaded part of the English lexicon. It is argued that the precise way in which these sensory words engage in emotional language follows from how the corresponding senses are tied to emotional processes in perception and in the brain.

Chapter 6 addresses phonological differences between classes of sensory words, arguing that tactile and auditory words are particularly prone to sound symbolism. A look at tactile sound symbolism reveals that “r is for rough”, with many words for rough surfaces ("bristly", "prickly", "abrasive") containing the sound /r/.

Chapters 7 and 8 look at how sensory words can be combined with each other. In particular, these chapters address the question: Why is it that touch and taste adjectives ("soft", "sweet") are those most likely to be used to describe other sensory impressions ("soft color", "sweet sound")? And why is it that auditory adjectives ("loud", "squealing", "muffled") are not used much at all in comparable expressions? It is shown that whether or not a word can be used in such so-called “synesthetic metaphors” is partly due to the affective dimension of language, and partly due to frequency and sound symbolism: Highly frequent and affective words with little sound symbolism are most likely to occur in metaphors.

Together, the empirical analyses presented throughout the chapters of this dissertation provide a quantitative description of English sensory words that ultimately leads to a view of the English lexicon as thoroughly embodied, with profuse connections between language and sensory perception.

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