Word Meanings Aren’t Completely Arbitrary

The words we choose are affected by how easy it is to say things.

Posted Jul 02, 2018

Geralt CC0 via Pixabay
Source: Geralt CC0 via Pixabay

A centerpiece of the study of linguistics has been that the words we use are arbitrarily related to the concepts they refer to.  To some degree, this is true.  If you look across languages, the same object is given very different names.  An object called a bridge in English is un pont in French.  Same concept, very different sounds.  This observation is embodied in Shakespeare’s quote, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”

But, word meanings aren’t completely arbitrary.  Recently, I wrote a post about the “Kiki-Bouba” effect in which words that lead you to speak with a smiling mouth (like Kiki) feel more natural when they apply to angled objects than to rounded ones, but words that lead you to speak with a rounded mouth (like Bouba) feel more natural when they apply to rounded objects than to angled ones.

In addition, there is a general relationship between how often a word is used (what is called word frequency) and the length of the word.  High frequency words (that is, words that are used often) are typically short (like sit, far, or chew), while low frequency words (that are used less often) are typically longer (like recline, distant, or masticate). 

An interesting paper by Erin Bennett and Noah Goodman in a 2018 issue of the journal Cognition looks at parts of speech called intensifiers.  An intensifier is a word that amplifies some dimension.  So, a ridiculously expensive wristwatch is probably more expensive than just an expensive wristwatch.

English has a lot of different intensifiers, and many of them signal different levels of intensity.  A very expensive wristwatch feels like it is probably cheaper than an insanely expensive wristwatch, even though it probably costs more than just an expensive wristwatch.  Are there any factors that determine how people judge the strength of an intensifier, or is it purely arbitrary?

Bennett and Goodman suggest that an intensifier will be judged to be stronger when it is harder to produce and to understand.  Two factors that can make a word harder to produce and understand are word frequency and word length.  Word frequency influences difficulty of use, because it is harder to retrieve a word that is not used often from memory than a word that is often used.  In addition, longer words can be harder to say and comprehend than shorter words.  Of course, as I mentioned earlier, frequency and length are often related in languages.

In one set of studies, the researchers identified a large group of intensifiers and had people judge degrees for different domains.  The intensifiers were words like frightfully, very, and extremely.  The dimensions were things like how beautiful, expensive, old, or tall an object is.  Participants would see 10 phrases using intensifiers, and they had to rank them based on how extreme they thought they were.

Across all four dimensions, less frequent intensifiers were judged to be stronger than more frequent intensifiers.  The shorter intensifiers were also judged to be more intense than longer ones, but because word length and word frequency are correlated, it is hard to know from this study whether both length and frequency matter. 

To test whether word length matters, the experimenters also did studies in which they had people judge new made-up intensifiers in addition to known ones, and they manipulated the length of the made-up word people saw.  In one study, participants did a similar rank ordering like the one I just described.  In addition to using several familiar intensifiers in phrases, there was one new one introduced. The new intensifier people saw was either short (one of the made-up words used was bugornly) or longer (tupabogornly).  The longer made-up words always contained the shorter made-up word in it.  Consistent with the idea that word length influences intensifiers, the longer word was judged to be a stronger intensifier than the shorter word.  

These studies are another demonstration that the words we use in language are arbitrary to some degree, but not completely so.  There are aspects of the way we use language that reflect factors like the ease of producing and comprehending speech. 


Bennett, E.D. & Goodman, N.D. (2018). Extremely costly intensifiers are stronger than quite costly ones. Cognition, 178, 147-161