Size sound symbolism in the English lexicon

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Experimental and cross-linguistic evidence suggests that certain speech sounds are associated with size, especially high front vowels with 'small' and low back vowels with 'large'. However, empirical evidence that speech sounds are statistically associated with magnitude across words within a language has been mixed and open to methodological critique. Here, we used a random-forest analysis of a near-exhaustive set of English size adjectives (e.g., tiny, gargantuan) to determine whether the English lexicon is characterized by size-symbolic patterns. We show that sound structure is highly predictive of semantic size in size adjectives, most strongly for the phonemes /i/, /i/, /α/, and /t/. In comparison, an analysis of a much larger set of more than 2,500 general vocabulary words rated for size finds no evidence for size sound symbolism, thereby suggesting that size sound symbolism is restricted to size adjectives. Our findings are the first demonstration that size sound symbolism is a statistical property of the English lexicon.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1-13
JournalGlossa: a journal of general linguistics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jun 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information: Bodo Winter was supported by the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship MR/T040505/1.


  • Adjectives
  • Crossmodal analogy
  • Frequency code
  • Iconicity
  • Semantic size
  • Systematicity

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Linguistics and Language
  • Language and Linguistics


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