“This summer, Christiansen organized a symposium at a language acquisition conference in Montreal where evidence showed that some systematic sound-to-meaning correspondences do exist. For instance, toddlers consistently matched rounded vowels, such as “koko,” to rounded shapes and non-rounded vowels, such as “kiki,” to jagged shapes.
“Such systematic relationships between sound and meaning make it easier to figure out what the rough meaning of a word is,” said Christiansen. “So, from a learning perspective, it’s paradoxical that most words have an arbitrary sound-to-meaning relationship.”
A study published by Christiansen and two colleagues in the August Journal of Experimental Psychology: General provides new insight into this paradox. They uncovered a trade-off between arbitrariness and “systematicity” within the sound of words.”