Sound symbolism: Can Pokemon help linguists see why a chair is called a chair?
What is it about words that indicates their meaning? Are there common threads that run across cultures and languages? Linguists are looking for answers, in the 800 made-up words that constitute the names of the set of animation characters called Pokemon.
To what extent does the sound of a word symbolise the nature of the object? A new study is using Pokemon to try and establish links.
The study is being conducted by two PhD students and three professors from the departments of linguistics and cognitive science at University of California, Merced and University of California, Berkeley. When they were looking for a tool to study the way people process language, they fixed upon the Pokemon animation characters‘ names.
Since most Pokemon have made-up words for names, such as Squirtle and Blastoise, it seemed like a good way to assess how sound could indicate meaning. And a set of over 800 names offered more variety than, say, Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem Jabberwocky, which incidentally has been used in numerous linguistics studies too.
Studying sound symbolism is notoriously hard because it is very difficult to find usable data across cultures and languages, Jordan Ackerman, a student of cognitive and information science at Merced, tells Wknd. For example, you might look at the sounds in the words for “chair” in different languages, but “chair” itself is defined differently in different cultures. It may also be a stool, a beanbag or a throne, which makes it hard to relate sounds with physical features.
The truth is it’s not clear how much sound symbolism does exist in spoken language, Ackerman says, and linguists typically fall on one of two sides when it comes to the sound symbolism debate. There are those who believe that most of human language is not designed to make room for an intrinsic link between the sound of a word and the form it represents. And there are those, like these researchers, who believe there is more sound symbolism in language that we realise.
Ackerman and his colleagues are using Pokemon to try and understand what these links might look like, since these were terms created or repurposed in our times to denote very specific objects. Could Pokemonikers then reveal something about why a chair might have been called a chair?
“What we found is that there is both language-specific and cross-language sound symbolism,” Ackerman says. For example, “longer Pokemon names are associated with more evolved Pokemon stages; so the Pokemon character Abra grows into Kadabra and then a much stronger Alakazam. In Japanese, it grows from Giaru to Gigiaru and then to Gigigiaru.”
In the names for Pokemon across the six languages that Ackerman and his colleagues studied (English, Japanese, Mandarin, Cantonese, Russian and Korean), increase in Pokemoniker length always correlated with increases in Pokemon size, weight, power and evolutionary stage. Certain sounds (voiced obstruents such as b, d, v and z sounds) and certain tones in Mandarin and Cantonese were found over and over in the names for Pokemon with certain physical attributes.
“Interestingly, of all the Pokemon attributes, the ones that were most likely to be used in sound symbolism are the same ones that are useful in the game, like power and evolutionary stage,” Ackerman says.
Since the publication of their initial findings in the journal of the Linguistic Society of America in 2018, the work has drawn more attention. “We now organise a recurring conference on Pokemonastics, the study of Pokemon names,” Ackerman says.