The bouba / kiki effect, or why some words are round and others pointed to all humans

The bouba / kiki effect, or why some words are round and others pointed to all humans, What kind of figure would appear in your imagination if you read the word ” peach “? Most likely, right now you are thinking of a kind of round, wavy, flattened object. Logical, on the other hand: you’ve spent your whole life associating the word “peach” with a type of rounded, wavy, flattened fruit. Consequently, the peach sound, with its multiple “o” and its intermediate “c” seems round, wavy, flattened. Language is supposed to work like this. those who define our language? What if the sound of “peach” evokes round images in Spanish, Hungarian, Japanese and Yoruba?

The previous thesis is known as the “bouba / kiki” effect and arises from a very simple experiment carried out by a German psychologist, Wolfgang Köhler , in 1929. During his stay in Tenerife, Köhler gathered a number of participants and asked them to associate two words without any meaning in Spanish, “takete” and “baluba”, to two different figures, one pointed and the other more rounded. Invariably, everyone involved joined “takete” with the pointed and “baluba” with the rounded. Any of us, Spanish speakers, would have done it.

Köhler’s exercise was interesting because neither ” takete ” nor ” baluba “had any meaning in Spanish. The association of images was thus produced either by phonetics or by the peculiarities of our Latin alphabet (“k” has a more pointed shape than “b”). Since then, multiple researchers have tried to see if the effect, one of the most striking in linguistics, also occurred in other languages ​​and alphabets. The answer is yes, although for many years there was not much consensus on its causes.

On 2001 , a study replicated the Köhler experiment among students American and Tamil speakers, one of the largest language communities in India. The 95% of the first and the 99% of the seconds associated “bouba” and “kiki” with rounded and pointed shapes respectively. The interesting thing about that work lay in the contrast: English and Tamil are languages ​​that keep distance from each other (one Indo-European, the other Dravidian ) and that they use completely different alphabets (one Latin, the other one of its own based on the ancient Brahmi script).

Clearing the bouba / kiki Other works have supported the preponderance of the effect by analyzing the behavior of very young children, between four months and two years old; while others have found a certain correlation between the moral or qualitative attributes that we attribute to “bouba” (more positive) versus “kiki” (more negative, which extends to proper names with a sound similar to one of the two words, see Molly vs. Kate ).

All of the above leads to the study that may solve the enigma of “bouba / kiki” and its preponderance within all human cultures once and for all. Published a few weeks ago in the journal The Royal Society , the work analyzes the responses of thousands of participants belonging to twenty-five language communities from ten different writing systems. His conclusion: “The phenomenon has its roots in an intermodal correspondence, independent of spelling.” That is, almost all human cultures tend to associate “bouba” with rounded figures and “kiki” with pointed figures regardless of how the pseudo-words are translated into a paper.

What word do you think of? (Fernando Meloni / Unsplash)

And because? In large part due to the auditory clues left by phonemes. “Both words differ in a number of phonetic and phonological aspects, yielding markedly different acoustic and articulative profiles,” they explain. The voicing of “bouba” and “kiki” is antagonistic from the formation of vowels and consonants, both in terms of frequency, duration and articulation. We know from other investigations , for example, that round vowels and the labial consonants appear in our mind with rounded shapes, which influences the final perception, so distant and so marked, of “bouba” with respect to “kiki”.

Equally Thus, the totality of each word, its complete sonority, induces us to one kind of form or another. “Kiki”, with its rapid exchange of high frequencies (“i”) and abrupt pauses (the dry sound of the “k”) would be transferred to the visual field by means of pointed figures, very angular, denoting very high contrasts. “Bouba”, with its more stable frequency and lower sonority , would evoke a greater sensation of smoothness and roundness, correlated in turn with rounded objects. It is something that we can perceive regardless of the spelling.

As the loudness does not explain it All in all, users of the Roman alphabet (where the letters of “kiki” are pointed and very sharp compared to the roundness and smoothness of “bouba”) scored higher in the correlation of “bouba / kiki” than others, although only marginally. As the authors recall, the persistence of the effect among very young speakers who have not yet had formal contact with the alphabet and writing or its clear presence among speakers of Bantu languages ​​ or Sino-Tibetan , so far removed from Indo-European, prove its existence beyond spelling bias.

Although “bouba / kiki” is not equally intense among all speaking communities, the exceptions, the authors conclude, do not overshadow the statistical robustness of the effect. “The importance of the phenomenon is modulated by the linguistic and cultural context, but there is a strong and universal trend in its intermodal correspondence”, they add. Which has important implications when studying the evolution of language, of its different languages:

If the “bouba / kiki” effect had been exclusively linked to some writing systems and only observed in certain groups of languages, it would not have played any role in the origins of spoken language. But by showing that there is a strong correspondence between vocal signals and visual forms outside of writing systems, “bouba / kiki” becomes relevant for theories of the evolution of language. It suggests that such correspondences could have served to extend an iconicity in spoken languages ​​beyond onomatopoeia. That is, “bouba / kiki” would illustrate how certain intermodal associations would have led us to greater clarity and order in the vocalization of aspects such as shapes, sizes, touch and colors . In other words: that as other recent studies suggest, the way we vocalize is intimately linked to what we want to communicate, a primitive resource in its origin that would later lead to the thousands and thousands of languages ​​and writing systems that we use today. in day. But that somehow they would have a similar origin, that “bouba / kiki”, whose universal presence has now become more evident.

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