The proposal that linguistic sounds such as phonemes, features, syllables, or tones can be meaningful, or sound-symbolic, contradicts the principles of arbitrariness and double articulation that are axiomatic to structural linguistics. Nevertheless, a considerable body of research that supports principles of sound symbolism has accumulated. This review discusses the most widely attested forms of sound symbolism and the research programs linked to sound symbolism that have influenced linguists and anthropologists most. Numerous reports of magnitude sound symbolism in the form of experimental studies and comparative surveys have been integrated into a biologically based theory of its motivation. Magnitude sound symbolism also catalyzed a number of experimental studies by psychologists and linguists in search of a universal sound-symbolic substrate underlying all languages. Although the search for a sound-symbolic substrate has been abandoned, the success rates of these studies have never been satisfactorily explained. Sound-symbolic processes have had a definitive impact on morphological analyses of phonesthemes and on historical linguists' understandings of diachronic processes. A typologically widespread form of sound symbolism occurs as a kind of lexical class known as the ideophone, which is conspicuously underdeveloped in standard average European languages, and highly perplexing for linguists and anthropologists. Although it has always been a respectable domain of inquiry in ethnopoetics and interpretive ethnography, the case for sound symbolism has of late been argued with renewed vigor on the part of psychological anthropologists and philosophers who see a paradigm shift under way.


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  • Article Type: Review Article
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