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The sound and the shape

John Murray

They say a picture tells a thousand words, but can words and sounds themselves form pictures in our minds? Is there any pattern to  the way they do this from person to person?

In 2001, Indian neuroscientist Vilayanur S. Ramachandran revisited a study undertaken some 72 years earlier in which participants were presented with two unusual shapes; one had jagged, triangular edges, while the other had rounder, curvier protrusions. All the participants had to do was name each shape, deciding which one was ‘bouba’ and which was ‘kiki’.

Have a go yourself – picture the two shapes and decide which is which.

Well, there’s no right or wrong answer, but if you called the jagged shape ‘kiki’, you’re in the vast majority. Between 95% to 98% of those asked came to the same conclusion.

You might think that’s no surprise; ‘kiki’, after all, is ‘kicking’. A kick is a sharp, angled, jutting movement that mimics the edges of that shape. ‘Bouba’, meanwhile, sounds like ‘bubble’, which is soft and round, so maybe it’s only because of our understanding of existing words that we’re able to match seemingly arbitrary shapes and sounds.

That may be a fair argument but for the fact that this test was also carried out on Indian Tamil speakers, with the same results. In fact, even pre-reading age kids have been found to favour the name ‘kiki’ for our jagged friend and ‘bouba for its curvier counterpart. What it suggests is that our brains show a pattern of connecting words and sounds with images.

So why should ‘kiki’ mean spiky and angular while ‘bouba’ means curly and bubbled? Perhaps a lot of this can be explained through phonetics.

Say the word ‘kiki’ out loud – you’ll find that you use mainly the back of your throat to say it. The sounds are short, harsh and abrupt. The ‘k’ is plosive, which means you expel it from your oral cavity – you can’t keep making the noise until you run out of breath like you can with an ‘l’, ‘m’ or ‘n’ sound. These vocalisations are quick and punchy, like the shape most people agree they describe.

Now say ‘bouba’ – it starts with the bilabial ‘b’ and you’ll notice you actually have to round your lips to say it, much like the rounded, curvy shape.

All in all, this raises interesting questions about the development of language. Were arbitrary names assigned to arbitrary things and then followed because somebody said so? Or did our like-minded ancestors mutually agree on noises to represent items without even trying to, just because the names sounded right to them?

John is every inch the wordsmith and loves a game of Scrabble above all else. With experience writing for newspapers, John’s time at university was spent studying Creative Writing – something which comes across in his love of the pun.

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