Non-arbitrary mappings between size and sound of English words: Form typicality effects during lexical access and memory

Greig I. de Zubicaray, Joanne Arciuli, Frank H. Guenther, Katie L. McMahon, Elaine Kearney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)
50 Downloads (Pure)


A century of research has provided evidence of limited size sound symbolism in English, that is, certain vowels are non-arbitrarily associated with words denoting small versus large referents (e.g., /i/ as in teensy and /ɑ/ as in tall). In the present study, we investigated more extensive statistical regularities between surface form properties of English words and ratings of their semantic size, that is, form typicality, and its impact on language and memory processing. Our findings provide the first evidence of significant word form typicality for semantic size. In five empirical studies using behavioural megastudy data sets of performance on written and auditory lexical decision, reading aloud, semantic decision, and recognition memory tasks, we show that form typicality for size is a stronger and more consistent predictor of lexical access during word comprehension and production than semantic size, in addition to playing a significant role in verbal memory. The empirical results demonstrate that statistical information about non-arbitrary form-size mappings is accessed automatically during language and verbal memory processing, unlike semantic size that is largely dependent on task contexts that explicitly require participants to access size knowledge. We discuss how a priori knowledge about non-arbitrary form-meaning associations in the lexicon might be incorporated in models of language processing that implement Bayesian statistical inference.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)943-963
Number of pages21
JournalQuarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology
Issue number5
Early online date18 Jun 2023
Publication statusPublished - May 2024


  • embodiment
  • Form typicality
  • megastudy
  • memory
  • semantic size
  • word recognition


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