By Emma Young
Many of us are familiar with the “bouba / kiki” – or “maluma / takete” effect – we tend to think of round, stupid shapes with the words “bouba” or “maluma” and prickly shapes with “kiki” or “takete” combine “. These results hold for speakers of many different languages and ages, and different explanations for the effect have been suggested.
But these studies have used made up words almost entirely (like these four), note the authors of a new paper in Psychonomic Bulletin & Reviewwho found that the effect is also evident in the English language. That is, the components of invented words that we commonly combine with a round shape are also found in nouns referring to actual round objects, and the same is true for prickly sounds and objects.
David M Sidhu, now at University College London, and colleagues recruited 171 students in Canada. Each person was presented with 100 sentences containing six specific nouns, and for each sentence they had to choose the two nouns they believed related to the “roundest” and “prickiest” objects – for example, they had to select the roundest and prickly objects from “unicycle”, “moon”, “balcony”, “pyramid”, “jet” and “drill”. From these results, the researchers generated a spiky / round rating for each word. (The top five “roundest” ones in that order were: softball, ball, olive, pea, and globe, while spike, fork, porcupine, and scalpel topped the “prickliest” item list.)
The team then looked at the phonemes, or various “tone units”, that made up these nouns. They compared these results with previous studies examining which phonemes in made-up words are generally associated with roundness or spikiness.
Almost all of the phonemes previously associated with roundness were actually present in the real words that participants identified as relating to round objects, and the same is true for the spikiness. So the noises u like in “up”, m, oo like in the boot and b were more common in nouns referring to round objects, while the noises k, t and I as in “ship” were more common in nouns referring to prickly objects. “Our main finding was that many of the associations between phonemes and shapes found in laboratory assignments are corroborated by the pairing of sound and meaning in English,” the team writes.
There were some unexpected results. For example, in this study, in contrast to some earlier ones which contain made up words, s and Sch were more common in words for prickly objects. However, this result fits in with works that associate certain phonemes with more or less emotional arousal. We tend to perceive words with hissing noises as higher in emotional arousal – which is also associated with prickliness. The researchers also note that these phonemes, along with other consonants that are common in words for spiky objects, require tongue involvement while m, betc. are only done with the lips.
This work contributes to the argument that (in addition to cases of onomatopoeia) there is at least some relationship between the sound of words in English and what they refer to. This is not a strong relationship; As the researchers themselves emphasize: “Many other factors play a greater role in the form of language.” Still, the work reveals some consistent round / spiky patterns in real English words, which appears to be a first in nearly 100 years of research on the effect.
– Tone symbolism shapes the English language: The Maluma / Takete effect in English nouns
Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) works at BPS Biomedarticles