Iconicity in child language acquisition
The study in a sentence
We know that children use a lot of onomatopoeic words - which sound like the thing they refer to - in their early speech. Previous studies have proposed that this is because some form-meaning pairings in language are iconic, as in the (famous) shape-naming experiment known as the bouba~kiki (and sometimes also as maluma~takete) effect. This might make it easier to learn what words mean.
This study argues that onomatopoeia are common in children's early speech, not because they are 'easier to learn', but instead because they give children a way to practise key linguistic skills, such as turn-taking, even though their vocabulary and grammatical knowledge are still small.
This study explored children's use of onomatopoeic words:
in the children's own speech: did they use onomatopoeic words more or less frequently than the standard counterpart? (that is, did they use 'meow' more frequently than 'cat'?)
in their interactional context: when did the children use the onomatopoeic words, and what were they responding to at that point in the interactional sequence?
The relationship between the form and meaning of words is usually thought to be arbitrary; that is, you cannot tell from the sound or structure of a word what it means. However, there are some words that show the opposite tendency, called iconicity; in these words we get a hint (at least) of what the word means from the way it sounds.
Onomatopoeia are a special case, where the form~meaning mapping is particularly clear.
Is the form of onomatopoeia also distinctive? See the case study on Onomatopoeia in Infant Directed Speech
A video [8 mins] by Catherine Laing explaining how to perform searches in WordBank.
WordBank is an open database of children's vocabulary development.
WordBank data is based on reports from a screening task taken by many thousands of families, used all over the world to test how many words children know, at different ages and in different languages.
It turns out that:
children use onomatopoeic words more frequently than their standard counterparts
however, the onomatopoeia are not less complex or 'easier to say' than the real words;
both caregivers and children use onomatopoeic words as a way to 'keep the conversation going'
children use onomatopoeia to refer to things they have not yet mastered the real word for.
In more detail
A longer explanation of the research study
Pre-Workshop Talk [1min 39s]
Live Webinar Talk [20 mins]
Slides from the Live Webinar talk
Meet the author
Catherine is a Lecturer at Cardiff University, but will be joining the staff at York in late 2021. She teaches modules in Phonological Development.