✨New paper - Phonosemantic maps for exploring iconic associations

✨New paper - Phonosemantic maps for exploring iconic associations

Our new paper on phonosemantic maps for exploring iconic associations is out in the JASA special issue on Iconicity and Sound Symbolism 🎉

This paper is the culmination of a longstanding collaborative effort led by Kimi Akita from Nagoya University. We started the phonosemantic maps with data from Japanese and English (see here), then teamed up with Jiyeon Park and Arthur Lewis Thompson to add data from Korean and Mandarin Chinese respectively😄 It was a really fun collaborative project and it’s great to see the results finally come to fruition!

You can find and cite the paper here:

Akita, K., McLean, B., Park, J., & Thompson, A.L. (2024). Iconicity mediates semantic networks of sound symbolism. The Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 155, 2687–2697.

The main research question was are iconic associations in spoken languages independent of one another, or linked? Say we find that the same sound is associated with two different meanings, Y and Z. The logical possibilities for explaining how that sound came to be associated with both those meanings are shown in the figure below (Figure 1 from the paper).


  • The two meanings are instances of some broader meaning X that is associated with the sound (A)
  • One of the sound-meaning associations is prior, while the other is the result of a metaphorical extension from the first meaning (B)
  • (C) in the figure above is a combination of situations (A) and (B). So it could be that there is some higher level semantic feature that connects both meanings to the sound, but also a metaphorical link between the two meanings
  • Or, as in (D), the two sound-meaning associations could also be independent. This is possible because iconicity is in general selective. That is, it is only certain aspects of sound and certain aspects of meaning that get mapped, so multiple associations can exist independently and concurrently. We refer to this in the paper as the “pluripotentiality” of iconicity (see paper for further discussion and references).

To investigate this, we explored Japanese, English, Korean and Mandarin Chinese speakers associations with different sounds, along three semantic scales: size, brightness, and hardness. We found the same sounds associated with meanings spanning multiple of these scales, but the combinations of meanings that we found did not match any known metaphorical or metonymic relations (nor any reported colexifications). That is, the patterns we found were more likely to be explained by situations of the type A and D rather than B or C. This is cool because it means that (at least some of) the semantic networks that we find in iconic lexicons are likely unique to those lexicons, while also highlighting how iconicity is pluripotential.

We also introduce a novel transformation of Haspelmath’s semantic maps—a tool used in typological research on patterns of grammaticalistion, see e.g., Haspelmath (2008)—into phonosemantic maps for typological explorations of patterns of sound symbolism.

In a typical semantic map, the base of the map is the cognitive space, and it is onto this cognitive space that the functions of different grammatical morphemes are mapped. In our phonosemantic maps, on the other hand, the base of the map is instead the phonological (or phonetic) space, and it is onto this phonological space that phonosemantic associations are mapped. Whereas in a typical semantic map the assumption is that semantic extension occurs primarily through conceptual links, for phonosemantic maps we assume that semantic extension occurs primarily via links mediated by iconicity. We say this because the semantic networks we find differ from those of metaphor.

The phonosemantic maps we made for the concepts of SIZE, BRIGHTNESS, and HARDNESS in Japanese, English, Mandarin Chinese, and Korean are shown below:

As shown in the map, some associations were widely shared between the languages (e.g. the association between /i/ and small), while others were language specific (e.g. only Japanese speakers formed specific associations with voiceless consonants).

The most interesting cases are the patterns of multiple associations, especially when we see these same patterns recur across languages. For example, in both English and Korean we found an association between /u/ and dark, while in English, Mandarin, and Japanese there was an association between /u/ and soft. Neither of these specific associations have been reported on in the literature before. However, the association between /u/ and darkness could be mediated by a more general crossmodal correspondence between pitch and brightness, in which lower frequency sounds are perceived as darker than high frequency sounds (Marks, 1975; Moos et al., 2014; Kim et al., 2018; Cuskley et al., 2019; Anikin and Johansson, 2019; Johansson et al. 2020a). The /u/-darkness association could be one instance of this more general cross-modal correspondence; a situation as in pattern A in the first figure1.

The association between /u/ and softness has again not been directly reported before. However, Johansson et al. (2020b) suggest a general link between rounded sounds and softness, which could explain a collection of specific associations that they find between /u/ and the concepts BRAIN, BUTTOCKS, and ROTTEN (all soft things). Our data would support this analysis. As for the motivation behind this association, it’s hard to say since iconicity is inherently subjective, but we suggest that the the softness of the lips in rounded vowels could match a soft object, or that the rounded shape of the lips evokes a dull, rather than sharp, image that matches a soft surface (see, e.g., Köhler, 1929).

The crucial thing is that softness and darkness would probably never be linked as concepts if it weren’t for the mediating factor of iconicity. In fact, in the general lexicon softness is more likely to be associated with brightness rather than darkness, presumably through the positive valence they have in common (for examples, see p.2695 of the paper). An interesting question for future research is thus whether and how semantic networks in the iconic lexicon interact with those of the general lexicon. For example, whether they might interfere with or “block” certain patterns of semantic extension, as has been reported for sign languages (Meir, 2020).

Of course, we only looked at three semantic scales and a handful of phonological contrasts. However, we hope this study will serve as a useful framework for future investigations of iconicity, in particular to unite and compare findings across different studies so that we can better identify, for example, higher-order factors mediating specific iconic associations (Sidhu and Pexman, 2018; Sidhu et al., 2022), and to study how semantic networks in the iconic lexicon differ from those we know from the general lexicon.


Anikin, A. & Johansson, N. (2019). “Implicit associations between individual properties of color and sound.” Attention, Perception, & Psychophysics 81(3), 764–777

Cuskley, C., Dingemanse, M., Kirby, S., & Van Leeuwen, T. M. (2019). “Cross-modal associations and synesthesia: Categorical perception and structure in vowel–color mappings in a large online sample.” Behavior research methods, 51, 1651-1675.

Haspelmath, M.(2003). “The geometry of grammatical meaning: Semantic maps and cross-linguistic comparison,” in The New Psychology of Language, edited by M. Tomasello (Erlbaum, Mahwah), Vol. 2, pp. 211–242.

Johansson, N., Anikin, A., and Aseyev, N. (2020a). “Color sound symbolism in natural languages,” Lang. Cogn. 12, 56–83.

Johansson, N. E., Anikin, A., Carling, G., and Holmer, A. (2020b). “The typology of sound symbolism: Defining macro-concepts via their semantic and phonetic features,” Linguist. Typol. 24, 253–310.

Kim, H. W., Nam, H., & Kim, C. Y. (2018). “[i] is lighter and more greenish than [o]: Intrinsic association between vowel sounds and colors.” Multisensory Research, 31(5), 419-437.

Köhler, W. (1929). Gestalt Psychology (Horace Liveright, New York).

Marks, L. E. (1975). “On colored-hearing synesthesia: Cross-modal translations of sensory dimensions,” Psychol. Bull. 82, 303–331.

Meir, I. (2010). “Iconicity and metaphor: Constraints on metaphorical extension of iconic forms,” Language 86, 865–896.

Moos, A., Smith, R., Miller, S. R., & Simmons, D. R. (2014). “Cross-modal associations in synaesthesia: Vowel colours in the ear of the beholder.” i-Perception, 5(2), 132-142.

Sidhu, D. M., and Pexman, P.M. (2018) “Five mechanisms of sound symbolic association.” Psychonomic bulletin & review 25, 1619-1643.

Sidhu, D. M., Vigliocco, G., and Pexman, P. M. (2022). “Higher order factors of sound symbolism,” J. Mem. Lang. 125, 104323.

  1. The association between /u/ and DEEP reported in Johansson et al. (2020b) could be another instance of this more general cross-modal association. ↩︎