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.

The questions

This study explored children's use of onomatopoeic words:

Key concepts

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. 

The answers

It turns out that:

Classroom activities

Lead in task

Using WordBank to find out whether some types of words are learned earlier than others.

Extension task

Exploring the relationship between iconicity and children's vocabulary development using WordBank

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Pre-Workshop Talk [1min 39s]

Live Webinar Talk [20 mins]

CPD2021 CL iconicity.pdf

Slides from the Live Webinar talk

Meet the author

Catherine Laing

Catherine is a Lecturer at Cardiff University, but will be joining the staff at York in late 2021.  She teaches modules in Phonological Development. 

Read the paper

Laing, C. (2019). A role for onomatopoeia in early language: evidence from phonological development. Language and Cognition, 11(2), 173-187. pdf