Sound symbolism and product names

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By Barbara Malt


In many animal communications, there is a transparent link between what is communicated and how that message is communicated. Animal threat displays, for example, often make the aggressor appear taller and fiercer by standing on end of hair and baring teeth. A dog communicates his excitement through looks and sound.

Human language is different: most words and phrases do not inherently sound like or sound like anything particular. It is only through a conventional and scholarly association of sounds with meanings that a message is conveyed. This is why the same animal can be called dog in English, perro in Spanish, dog in French, and hundred in German. And that’s why a human can sit in a dark movie theater and quietly whisper, “This is exciting! Or stand on a hiking trail and calmly say, “Freeze; there is a rattlesnake right in front.

But some words in human language sound like what they mean. Think crunchy and crisp, smooth and satiny. This phenomenon is known as sound symbolism and it has been observed in many languages. People who are shown word pairs from an unknown language can guess over the odds which word would refer to something that is, say, frizzy or smooth. The links between sound and meaning apply to vowels as well as consonants. High-pitched vowels, made towards the front of the mouth, tend to be associated with thin and light things. Lower vowels, made towards the back of the mouth, tend to be associated with big and heavy things.

Linguist Dan Jurafsky has shown that the food industry imbues the names of foods with this kind of sonic symbolism. He found that commercial ice cream, which is gaining market share by being known as rich and creamy, tends to use more names with back vowels (think rocky road, Jamoca’s almond fudge, chocolate, caramel, etc.). On the other hand, crackers, which are products meant to be crunchy and crunchy, tend to use names with previous vowels (consider Cheez-Its, Ritz, Krispy, Wheat Thins). Sound symbolism is therefore not a vestige of the distant era when human language emerged from a more primitive form of communication. It is commonly and productively used to create names for things in the modern world.

But are the marketing departments full of former linguistics graduates who have learned their lessons well on sound symbolism? Jurafsky’s research did not address this question. More likely, the connection between sound and meaning is reinforced by focus groups reliably preferring certain types of names for certain types of products. However, not all products benefit from such name verification. Cars like the Edsel and the Gremlin may have helped seal their own fate as business disasters by having the wrong vowels in their names.

Barbara Malt is Professor of Psychology at Lehigh University. She is associate editor of the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition and co-editor of Words and the Mind: How Words Capture the Human Experience. She is interested in language, thought and the relationship between the two.

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Image Credit: Lotus Head Caramel Nut Ice Cream. Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.


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