Sounding out ideas on language, vivid sensory words, and iconicity

Giggles follow-up: smiling verbs and happy adjectives show facial motor resonances

Just a quick follow-up on my earlier post. Foroni & Semin (in press, Psychological Science) do what I hoped somebody did: examining the bodily grounding of non-ideophonic vocabulary related to emotional states. Theirs is not an imaging study like Osaka & Osaka 2005, but a study of motor resonance in facial muscles. The terms tested are action verbs (to smile; to frown) and adjectives for the corresponding emotional states (without overt facial configurational semantics), e.g. ‘happy; angry’.

Very briefly, the results indicate that both types of words induce motor resonance in facial muscles, though the action verbs do so more strongly than the adjectives. The authors note the striking similarity of the results to earlier experiments involving visual stimuli (pictures of facial expressions, Ekman style; e.g. Dimberg & Petterson 2000). An interesting second experiment shows that the motor resonance even exerts influence on judgements of the funniness of cartoons: subjects subliminally primed with the verb ‘smile’ tend to rate cartoons as funnier than subjects subliminally primed with the verb ‘frown’. If facial muscle activity is inhibited by having participants holding a pen between their lips, the effect is not significant; neither is it significant in the case of adjectives like happy and angry.

There is some wiggle room still for ideophones. As Foroni and Semin say, ‘Not all linguistic expressions have the same consequences. Certain categories (i.e. verbs) induce motor resonance more than others and contribute differentially to the shape of our judgments.’ My hypothesis would be that ideophones for emotional states and facial configurations would rival verbs in the extent to which they cause motor resonance. Osaka & Osaka’s (2005) results are inconclusive in this regard, because they did not include non-ideophonic action verbs or other words in their comparison.


  1. Dimberg, Ulf, and Maria Petterson. 2000. Facial Reactions to Happy and Angry Facial Expressions: Evidence for Right Hemisphere Dominance. Psychophysiology 37, no. 05: 693-696.
  2. Foroni, Francesco, & Semin, Gün R. (2009). Language that puts you in touch with your bodily feelings: The Multimodal Responsiveness of Affective Expressions. Psychological Science.
  3. Osaka, Naoyuki, and Mariko Osaka. 2005. Striatal reward areas activated by implicit laughter induced by mimic words in humans: a functional magnetic resonance imaging study. Neuroreport 16, no. 15 (October 17): 1621-1624.  
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