Why People Hate or Love the Sound of Certain Words

We have all experienced how certain sounds can get on our nerves, like the sound of running fingernails on a blackboard or a baby’s cry, but it turns out that the sound of certain words (like “virus”) can also affect what we feel and even give us a hint as to what they mean (something to avoid). This phenomenon, where the sound of a word triggers an emotion or meaning, is called “sound symbolism”. However, the idea that there could be a link between the sound of words and their meaning goes against popular belief. linguistic thought dating back more than a century.

In our book, The Language Game: How Improvisations Created Language and Changed the World, we describe a radically new perspective on how we as humans got language in the first place, how children can learn and use it so easily, and how sound symbolism figures into it.

The relationship between sound and meaning

Language science has long assumed that the sound of a word should tell us nothing about what it means. This aims to explain why different languages ​​often use very different sound patterns to express the same meaning. For example, the perennial ligneous plant that we call in English “tree” is “Baum” in German, “tree” in French, and “shu(樹) in Mandarin Chinese. Of course, languages ​​contain onomatopoeias such as beep, bang, and buzz – but many researchers, like steven roserargued that such phonetic relationships are just exceptions that prove the rule.

However, as linguists have taken a closer look at the most 7,000 languagesthey discovered that sound symbolism is not a rare exception but comes in many shapes and forms. Our analysis involving nearly two-thirds of the world’s languages ​​revealed that there are reliable interrelationships between the particular sounds used in words and what the words mean.

For example, if you randomly choose a language that has the concept of “red”, the corresponding word is more likely to have an “r” sound – like “rod“in Danish,”Red“in French, and”krasnyy” (красный) in Russian. But that doesn’t mean that an ‘r’ sound always means ‘red’, only that words for red often have ‘r’ sounds around the world. And these relationships are not because the speakers of these languages ​​all live in the same place or because they speak languages ​​that all derive long ago from a common ancestor.

Invented words can also be symbolic. In a classic 1929 study, the German psychologist Wolfgang Kohler observed that when Spanish speakers were shown a rounded shape and a pointed shape and were asked which they thought was called “baluba” and which “takete”, most associated baluba with roundness and takete with spiciness . Later studies (replacing baluba with bouba and takete with kiki) found similar patterns among American Undergraduate Students and Tamil Speakers in India. Same infants from the age of four months have similar preferences.

In a 2021 study, we showed that this bouba-kiki effect could be rooted in emotional arousal (calming versus stimulating). People in our experiments felt that pointed shapes induce nervousness, while rounded shapes were perceived as softer and more soothing. Similarly, kiki was considered to have tense and harsh sonic properties, while bouba was more soothing.

In a final experiment, participants paired a whole new set of rounded and pointed shapes with a whole new set of bouba/kiki-like nonsense words. The results confirmed that pointed shapes were chosen for high arousal words and rounded shapes for low arousal words. This suggests that at least some of the connections between sound and meaning in our vocabulary are driven by our emotional responses to what we see and hear.

Why we also need arbitrariness

Sound symbolic connections between sound and meaning are useful: they can facilitate language learning because the sound of a word can constrain what it might mean. But there are limits to this.

Computer modeling of how children learn language revealed that as a child’s vocabulary grows, it becomes increasingly difficult to have unique sounds to signal different aspects of meaning (e.g., all words relating to water must begin with a “w”). Indeed, in a study of English meaning correspondenceswe found that words that tend to be acquired earlier in development were more symbolic than words that are acquired later.

There is, indeed, a powerful force that animates the sounds and meanings a part. Suppose all breeds of dogs are labeled with very similar words: for example, beagle, bagel and bugle, then the slightest bit of bad hearing will mean that we remember the wrong breed. But beagles, bugles and bagels are very different things. So hearing someone say they bought a new leash for their beagle isn’t likely to cause much confusion (buying a leash for a bugle or a bagel doesn’t make sense). Disconnecting sound and meaning makes communication more robust – and languages ​​will tend to loosen the connection between sound and meaning over time.

Yet many deep historical connections between sound and meaning are still detectable and can be surprisingly powerful. To calm the tensions of hearing about a virus, the same acoustic analyzes suggests a solution: focus instead on the soothing, calming sounds of the sun, moon, and mom. DM/ML

This story was first published in The conversation.

Morten H. Christiansen is the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Cornell University, as well as a Professor of Cognitive Science of Language in the School of Communication and Culture and the Interacting Minds Center at Cornell University. of Aarhus, Denmark, and Principal Investigator at Haskins Laboratories. wNick Chater is Professor of Behavioral Science at Warwick Business School, University of Warwick.

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