Recently, I had the pleasure of interviewing a pair of University of Toronto researchers about their work in sound symbolism, the intersection of linguistics and cognitive science that demonstrates the perceived link between sounds and meaning.
New research by research fellow Cris Rabaglia and Professor Sam Maglio shows that people associate words with front-of-the-mouth vowel sounds — those produced with the tongue relatively far forward in the mouth, such as the ee in feet – with nearness. Conversely, back-of-the-mouth vowel sounds — those produced with the tongue far back in the mouth, such as oo in food –are associated with distance. The research is published online in the journal Cognition.
It’s not only English where sound symbolism is evident; researchers have shown it to be valid for languages as diverse as Japanese and Swedish, and it is applicable for more concrete characteristics, too, such as an object’s shape. This was demonstrated as early as 1929 in an experiment by a scientist named Wolfgang Kohler and repeated in a 2001 experiment with English-speaking students in the United States and Tamil speakers in India. They were asked to look at a pointy object and a rounded object and determine which was called a bouba and which a kiki. At least 95 per cent of those in each group chose kiki as the pointy object and bouba as the rounded, organic shape.
Learning about sound symbolism is quirky and fun, but why should we bother otherwise? For anyone who works with branding, it’s important because these linguistic associations affect people’s impressions and behaviours. Doing some research before naming a product is worth the time it takes.
“Our feelings and intuitions about sounds influence what we feel is okay for names of specific items or brands,” Rabaglia told the University of Toronto Mississauga news. “If you name something in a way that isn’t intuitive, it could decrease the likelihood that people will want to interact with that product.”