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The aim of the present paper is to experimentally test whether sound symbolism has selective effects on labels with different ranges-of-reference within a simple noun-hierarchy. In two experiments, adult participants learned the make up of two categories of unfamiliar objects ('alien life forms'), and were passively exposed to either category-labels or item-labels, in a learning-by-guessing categorization task. Following category training, participants were tested on their visual discrimination of object pairs. For different groups of participants, the labels were either congruent or incongruent with the objects. In Experiment 1, when trained on items with individual labels, participants were worse (made more errors) at detecting visual object mismatches when trained labels were incongruent. In Experiment 2, when participants were trained on items in labelled categories, participants were faster at detecting a match if the trained labels were congruent, and faster at detecting a mismatch if the trained labels were incongruent. This pattern of results suggests that sound symbolism in category labels facilitates later similarity judgments when congruent, and discrimination when incongruent, whereas for item labels incongruence generates error in judgements of visual object differences. These findings reveal that sound symbolic congruence has a different outcome at different levels of labelling within a noun hierarchy. These effects emerged in the absence of the label itself, indicating subtle but pervasive effects on visual object processing.

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Categorization, Category label, Item label, Sound-symbolism