Estimating valence from the sound of a word: Computational, experimental, and cross-linguistic evidence

Max Louwerse, Zhan Qu

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

    15 Citations (Scopus)


    It is assumed linguistic symbols must be grounded in perceptual information to attain meaning, because the sound of a word in a language has an arbitrary relation with its referent. This paper demonstrates that a strong arbitrariness claim should be reconsidered. In a computational study, we showed that one phonological feature (nasals in the beginning of a word) predicted negative valence in three European languages (English, Dutch, and German) and positive valence in Chinese. In three experiments, we tested whether participants used this feature in estimating the valence of a word. In Experiment 1, Chinese and Dutch participants rated the valence of written valence-neutral words, with Chinese participants rating the nasal-first neutral-valence words more positive and the Dutch participants rating nasal-first neutral-valence words more negative. In Experiment 2, Chinese (and Dutch) participants rated the valence of Dutch (and Chinese) written valence-neutral words without being able to understand the meaning of these words. The patterns replicated the valence patterns from Experiment 1. When the written words from Experiment 2 were transformed into spoken words, results in Experiment 3 again showed that participants estimated the valence of words on the basis of the sound of the word. The computational study and psycholinguistic experiments indicated that language users can bootstrap meaning from the sound of a word.

    Original languageEnglish
    Pages (from-to)849–855
    JournalPsychonomic Bulletin & Review
    Issue number3
    Early online date25 Aug 2016
    Publication statusPublished - 2017


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