My roommates and I have set a routine during our 5-week Paris study abroad trip. Every day we leave our apartment at the 15tharrondissement(district) and take the metro to the 11tharrondissement. We make our way to the boulangerie. With croissants and coffee in hand, we walk to class.
Last night, as I was trying to fall asleep, I thought of tomorrow’s usual croissant breakfast. It was then that I realized that when I thought of the word croissant I thought of a crescent shape. Whereas the thought of an éclair was associated with an oblong shape. A mille feuille had a rectangular shape. Were these associations random?
Take a look at the two shapes presented below, which one would you associate with the word boba, and which with kiki?
I bet you would choose the one on the right to be bouba and the one on the left to be kiki. How did I know? As it turns out, we have a bias towards associating certain words with shapes irrespective of language and age.
Researchers studied individuals with synesthesia, which is a condition of blending sensory experiences with each other (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). For example, someone hearing a C note would associate it with the color blue. However, these researchers expected that the blending of sensory experiences extends to all normal individuals who exhibit synesthesia to a certain extent. Researchers asked participants to identify bouba or kiki to each of the shapes you saw above (Ramachandran and Hubbard, 2001). The results revealed 95% of participants associated the shape on the right with bouba. That is how I knew which association you were going to make. The results of the study, and the choice you just made yourself, depicts that our shape and sound associations are not completely random. Ramachandran and Hubbard (2001) speculate that the shape of the speaker’s lips—whether they are open and round, or wide and narrow—and the visual perception of an object being sharp or rounded are represented by parts of the brain that are connected with one another. Thus, there are connections between the sensory brain areas, brain areas related to perception, and the motors brain areas, brain areas related to movement. Other researchers also examined the effect of vowel and consonant shapes on the meaning of the random letters represented (McCormick et al. 2015). These findings suggest that there are not only connections between our brain areas related to shape and sound, but also connections between sounds and our understanding of the meaning associated with them.
This makes me wonder, would someone who is not an English speaker still match the shape on the right with bouba?
As both an English and Arabic native speaker, I have realized that I chose the shape on the right to be bouba because the “b” in both English and Arabic represents a softer sound, which would be associated with the rounder shape. However, do people who have not been influenced by the English language still associate the same shape with the sound?
Researchers found that indeed non-Westerners, who live in Himba of Northern Namibia, a remote population isolated from Western influence and written language exhibited shape-sound associations when presented with bouba and kiki (Bremner et al., 2013).
Looking at the identification made by participants above and my own identification of the two shapes as a twenty-year-old. I begin to wonder, as a child, would I still have chosen kiki to be the shape on the left?
Maurer et al. (2006) studied the bouba-kiki paradigm on 2.5-year-old children comparing them to adults. The researchers looked at the effect of age in the bouba-kiki phenomenon and whether it influences learning of language. The experiment consisted of a pair of rounded and pointed shapes and 2 random letters that the children identified with each of the shapes. There were four different trials. The results showed that regardless of age, participants matched rounded shapes with words that had rounded letters (ex. B, O), while the pointed shapes were matched with unrounded letters (ex. K, T). Thus, this depicts that shape-sound mapping occurs in children and may influence language development. This means that as a child, I would have still chosen the same shapes to represent bouba and kiki. However, there is a drawback to this study as children at 2.5 years have already learned how to say words. Hence, the possibility of vocabulary influencing their shape-sound mapping cannot be eliminated. Therefore, no direct conclusions can be made about its implications on the evolution of language. The researchers strengthened their conclusion by not only including bouba and kiki words and shapes, but also testing other shape and word associations. Thus, emphasizing that we are biased towards shape-word associations, which are independent of age.
So, shape-sound associations impact our categorization and representation of things. Now, when I think about croissants being crescent shaped and éclairs being oblong, I question: is my vocabulary affecting my word-shape association? This is something that remains unknown. Thus, future studies need to look at whether infants who have not yet learned how to speak would have the same shape-sound associations. Our insight that shape-sound associations are neither language dependent nor age dependent emphasizes that this phenomenon could be a part of the evolution of language. Further research is needed to explore this aspect of language.
Bremner, A. J., Caparos, S., Davidoff, J., de Fockert, J., Linnell, K. J., & 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(2), 165-172.
Maurer, D., Pathman, T., & Mondloch, C. J. (2006). The shape of boubas: Sound–shape correspondences in toddlers and adults. Developmental science, 9(3), 316-322.
McCormick, K., Kim, J., List, S., & Nygaard, L. C. (2015, July). Sound to Meaning Mappings in the Bouba-Kiki Effect. In CogSci (Vol. 2015, pp. 1565-1570).
Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia–a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of consciousness studies, 8(12), 3-34.
Image 2: Figure from the paper: Ramachandran, V. S., & Hubbard, E. M. (2001). Synaesthesia–a window into perception, thought and language. Journal of consciousness studies, 8(12), 3-34.
Image 3: Figure from the paper: Maurer, D., Pathman, T., & Mondloch, C. J. (2006). The shape of boubas: Sound–shape correspondences in toddlers and adults. Developmental science, 9(3), 316-322.