Vowel quality and iconic lengthening

  • Janek Guerrini


In spoken language it is possible to modulate the length of a given vowel in order to convey a strengthened meaning, e.g. in “looong talk” the denoted talk is longer than in “long talk". This very same lengthening is not felicitous for adjectives like short (* “shooort”). For this reason, the lengthening of “large”-type adjectives like “long” is usually held to be purely iconic (Schlenker, 2016; Fuchs et al., 2019), i.e. the result of a direct mapping from, e.g., the length of the talk to the length of the word “long”. However, for adjectives like “teeny”, iconic lengthening seems to be possible. Consequently, I argue that to account for iconic modulation of vowel length it is necessary to consider, alongside ‘pure’ iconicity, the back/front opposition of vowels, one of the most robust phenomena linked to sound symbolism. I submit that two mechanisms underlie modulation of vowel length: i) ‘Pure’ iconicity, mapping the length (or number of replications) of the vowel directly onto the size of the object of which the adjective is predicated, thus applying to “large”-type words only. ii) Intensification of the vowel symbolism, placing restrictions on the lengthenable vowel requiring the vowel type (back/ front) to ‘match’ with the semantic direction of the adjective (“large”-type/“small”-type respectively). I present two pilot studies that test acceptability judgments on scalar adjectives whose stressed vowel has been lengthened. The studies are underpowered, but there is a consistent trend that goes in the direction of our predictions.
How to Cite
Guerrini, J. (2020). Vowel quality and iconic lengthening. Proceedings of Sinn Und Bedeutung, 24(1), 242-255. https://doi.org/10.18148/sub/2020.v24i1.864