Paris! Land of crepes and croissants, escargot and éclairs, and absolutely exquisite baguettes. While sandwiches currently make up the vast majority of my diet, I’ve also delved into more exciting culinary exploits on occasion. A few days ago I tried escargot for the first time, and the week before, duck confit. I’ve also tasted mouth watering lemon tarts, mille feuille, and a host of other desserts whose names I do not know, courtesy of my terrible French (I may be a linguist, but I’ve never been particularly good at picking up languages).
I came to Paris two weeks ago with just enough knowledge of French to manage taking the train to my dorm room at Cite U–which, considering the number of people who speak English in France, boiled mostly down to “Bonjour”, “Pardon”, and “Parlez-vous anglais?” Since then, I’ve managed to pick up a handful of words, almost all of them about food (clearly, I have my priorities in order). Still, the majority of my ordering at cafes and restaurants involves pointing at what I want or butchering the words for and hoping it all ends well with my taste buds happy and my stomach full (it usually does).
However, my lack of French language skills occasionally makes for interesting culinary experiences. The first time I ordered a bagel from Morry’s Bagels, I picked out the word “saumon” and “oeuf” and assumed the bagel contained some combination of salmon and egg. To my pleasant surprise, the filling was salmon eggs, not salmon and egg. A few days ago I visited a patisserie nearby for a sandwich, but since they were all out of sandwiches with ingredients I understood, I used my classic point and pay method to get a sandwich that contained some sort of fish. I think. The connection between cuisine and language goes beyond potential difficulties with ordering food, however.
One of the key components of the definition of “language” that every linguistics student learns is arbitrariness. Languages, for the most part, are arbitrary; the sounds of a word do not denote the meaning (Monaghan et al., 2014). Nothing about the sounds in “poulet” makes a non-French speaker automatically think of chicken. However, while you may not be able to derive the meaning of a word from its sounds, you might be able to know some of its properties. In the famous “Kiki” and “Bouba” study by Dr. Ramachandran and Dr. Hubbard, participants looked at spiky or more rounded shapes and decided which nonsense word matched which shape. The angular shapes had a high correlation with “kiki”, while the more rounded shapes correlated with “bouba” in both English speakers and Tamil speakers (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001).
How does this relate to food?
Well, in 2011, Gallace et al. published a study looking at word-food associations. Ten participants sat in a darkened testing room and tasted several different foods such as Brie, strawberry yogurt, lime jam, or salt and vinegar crisps (aka potato chips), all covering a wide range of flavors and textures. After tasting one sample of each food, the participants rated the food for 24 different nonword, food related, and non-food related opposing pairs. Nonword pairs included, for example, “kiki” at one extreme and “bouba” at the other, while an example of non-food related ratings could be “fast” vs. “slow”, or “salty” vs. sweet for food-related ratings. So, for example, after tasting some strawberry yogurt, the participant might have to decide if the yogurt tasted more “kiki” or more “bouba”, more salty or more sweet, more slow or fast, and so on. After finishing each of the 24 ratings the participant would taste the next food sample, and continue on until they sampled and rated all food items. Each participant tasted and rated each food a maximum of 10 times.
The experimenters found a significant association between certain foods with particular nonwords more than others. The participants rated plain chocolate as more “bouba”, in comparison to mint chocolate, and salt and vinegar-flavored crisps were rated as more “takete” than cheddar cheese or Brie. However, these correlations do not line up neatly so that all the “bouba” foods have a particular taste or texture. This complex association may be due to how many of the other senses, such as smell and vision, interact with taste. To explain these associations, Gallace et al. go on to speculate that the connections between the gustatory areas and the frontal and temporal lobes in the brain may explain this connection between taste and sound, similar to how Ramachandran and Hubbard hypothesized that the connections and coactivation of visual and auditory areas lead synesthetes to “see” sounds (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). Interestingly enough, a study from 2013 found that while a remote population from Noerthern Namibia matched the same shapes and sounds to Westerners, they did not match the same tastes to sounds (Bremner et al., 2013). Thus, the connection between taste and sound is complex and most likely affected by culture.
As a double major in linguistics and neuroscience, I’ve learned about the “Bouba” and “Kiki” study many times, but it wasn’t until I arrived in Paris that I heard about the connection between sounds and taste. I’m excited to have found a connection between three of my passions–– food, neuroscience, and linguistics––and I can’t wait to discover what other connections to neuroscience I can make as I eat my way through Paris!
Bremner AJ, Caparos S, Davidoff J, de Fockert J, Linnell KJ, Spence C (2013) “Bouba” and “Kiki” in Namibia? A remote culture make similar shape-sound matches, but different shape-taste matches to Westerners. Cognition 126:165-172.
Gallace A, Boschin E, Spence C (2011) On the taste of “Bouba” and “Kiki”: An exploration of word–food associations in neurologically normal participants. Cognitive Neuroscience 2:34-46.
Monaghan P, Shillcock R, Christiansen M, Kirby S (2014) How arbitrary is language?. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 369:20130299-20130299.
Ramachandran V, Hubbard E (2001) Synesthesia and Language. Journal of Consciousness Studies 8:3-34.