The perceptual and acoustic characteristics of Korean idiomatic and literal sentences

Seung Yun Yang, Ji Sook Ahn, Diana Van Lancker Sidtis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Previous studies have suggested that formulaic and literal expressions are stored and processed according to differing characteristics, and that certain auditory-acoustic cues serve to distinguish formulaic from literal meanings. This study took these observations a step further by investigating listeners' ability to discriminate between literal or idiomatic exemplars of ambiguous utterances and determining the acoustic features underlying this distinction in a non-Indo-European language. 'Ditropically ambiguous' sentences, those with either a plausible literal or an idiomatic meaning, were audio-recorded by native speakers of Korean, once with an intended literal and once with an idiomatic meaning. Native Korean listeners were highly successful in discriminating the intended idiomatic or literal meanings. Acoustic analysis revealed that idiomatic utterances were characterized by significantly greater mean intensity, intensity variation, shorter duration, and greater variation in syllable duration; these cues differ from those shown to differentiate American English and French ditropic sentences. The findings suggest that acoustic cues serving to consistently distinguish the two utterance types, although different for different languages, may have universal status.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)166-178
Number of pages13
JournalSpeech, Language and Hearing
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2015


  • Acoustic analysis
  • Ditropic sentences
  • Idiomatic meaning
  • Korean
  • Listening study
  • Literal meaning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Otorhinolaryngology
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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