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Sound Advice

The study of language has the power to turn the average person into a mind reader. Take a look at the two figures above. If we told you that one of these shapes is called a kiki and the other a bouba, how would you match these names to the two shapes? There is no right or wrong answer, so just go with your gut and pick one. Are you ready for the mind reading part? We’re willing to bet that you said “kiki” pairs with the pointy, star-shaped figure on the right and that the cloud-like glob on the left should be called “bouba”. Were we right? If so, it begs the question: How’d we do that?

Unlike magicians, scientists are happy to share the tricks of their trade. In this case, the answer lies in subtle differences at one of the finest levels of psycholinguistic analysis. When we think about language, we usually think at a general level: conversations, paragraphs, sentences, maybe even words. But words themselves can be broken down into the tiny, specific sounds—called phonemes—that serve as the building blocks for all human languages. Each language in the world uses a specific, limited set of the potentially infinite sounds our mouths could produce; English, for example, uses between 40 and 50 distinct phonemes, depending on region and dialect. All of the words in a given language are just reconfigured collections of that language’s specific set of phonemes: little towers of meaning, all built as unique sequences from the same set of blocks. And it turns out that these little pieces of language pack a hefty psychological punch.

Consider vowels. All speech sounds are made by forcing air from the lungs to the outside world, with a trip through the vocal cords and mouth on the way. Vowels are a class of phonemes produced without ever completely stopping this airflow; different individual vowels are made by subtly changing the shape of the mouth during this process. You can experience this from the comfort of your chair with a simple exercise. First, try saying the word teal, then quickly afterward say tool. When you say teal—specifically, when you pronounce its vowel sound represented by the ‘ea’—your tongue is pushed up and forward; it shifts down and back while making the ‘oo’ sound in tool. Research has shown that this front-back distinction in vowels appears to be particularly psychologically salient. It’s not all about ‘ea’s and ‘oo’s, either. The vowels in the words bee, bin, bay, and bet all contain “front” vowels, while the vowels in bought, boat, but, boot are relatively “back” vowel sounds.

The human brain is essentially a sense-making organ, doing its best to interpret new information for its owner. And our brains appear to come equipped with an inclination to use the individual phonemes contained in names to make sense of unfamiliar words. That’s why our opening example tends to work so well. Without being aware of it, we experience an appropriateness or “fit” between the “k” and “ee” phonemes in kiki and something sharp and angular, so we say that the pointy star is the kiki. The sounds in bouba pair particularly well with roundness—meaning that we’ll match them with puffy clouds. In fact, upon giving a sample of people the task of pairing these two shapes and labels, researchers found that 95% of people make these pairings. Psychologists studying sound symbolism – the intuitive relationships humans appear to have between individual sounds and particular meanings – have compiled a long list of physical features that are associated with different vowels and consonants. Not only are words like kiki sharp and angular, but they’re also thin, small, fast, light, and bright. In the meantime, boubas and words with similar sounds have all the opposite features, making them dull, thick, big, slow, heavy, and dark.

Our brains appear to come equipped with an inclination to use the individual phonemes contained in names to make sense of unfamiliar words.

For those in the business of creating new brand names, this means that what you call your product can say a lot to your customers about what it does. Trying to convince consumers that your knife is sharper, lighter, and more precise than the competition? Like “kiki”, it had better have a front vowel sound in its name. But if you make big, heavy hammers instead, a back vowel, like those in “bouba”, in your product’s name may speak volumes about its effectiveness. You probably don’t want to use the “Kludger 2000” to perform the precise task of finely dicing your onions, but you might want to use it to knock down walls while renovating your house.

When people use vowel sounds in names to make inferences about physical features, language shapes what they expect from objects based on their names – its physical shape (sharp or dull?), its weight (heavy or light?), and so on. We became curious if these same vowel sounds might also impact how people think about objects, and what kinds of product features they would prioritize—do you care more about what the product can do for you today, or what it might do for you tomorrow? To test this idea, we asked a group of people to imagine experiencing some back pain, and then to consider a tradeoff regarding a massage aimed at helping this pain. We asked if they would rather receive a massage that was very soothing temporarily, but that didn’t cure their back problem long-term, or one that did offer long-term relief at the cost of being excruciating during the massage itself. If the massage technique just so happened to be called Daru (including the back vowel ‘oo’ sound at the end), participants thought about the future and opted for long-term relief. However, when the technique was named Dari (ending on a front vowel ‘ee’ sound), they cared more about the present moment and preferred a relaxing, pain-free 60 minutes on the massage table. In other words, simply changing the vowel sounds in the name of the massage shifted consumers’ apparent focus from the present to the future.

Exactly why these and other sound-symbolism effects occur is still an active area of research. In the case of the massage, we think it has something to do with the association between front vowels and the sense of “sharpness” or precision—demonstrated in the “kiki” example—being applied in an abstract way to time. Front vowels somehow narrow your focus, inviting you to concentrate on the present moment, while back vowels broaden your perspective, leading to a long-term view of time with greater consideration of the future.

While knives and hammers and remedies for back pain are just a few examples of where such tradeoffs may occur, the potential applications are many. The study of sound symbolism suggests that no particular sound is always better—rather, it is the fit between the particular sounds in the name and the message that is important. For instance, you may have noticed that you’re currently reading Peeps, front vowel and all. For a brand hoping to highlight the most exciting, current, and cutting-edge insights into people interested in people, this seems like a particularly apt name indeed. ●

Sam Maglio is an Assistant Professor of Marketing in the Department of Management at the University of Toronto Scarborough, with a cross-appointment to the Marketing area at Rotman School of Business. He conducts research at the interface of cognition, motivation, and emotion, with an emphasis on implications for consumer behaviour.

Cris Rabaglia is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow in Psychology at the University of Toronto, Mississauga. Her research focuses on human language processing and the interface between language and cognition.

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